an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia

Title: Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales
Author: M. E. Braddon
eBook No.: 2200171h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022

This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore

View our licence and header


cover

frontis02

frontis

titlepage

Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales

M. E. Braddon

 

CONTENTS

Ralph The Bailiff
     Chapter 1. - The Funeral Of The Elder Son
     Chapter 2. - A Shadow That Hears
     Chapter 3. - The Visitor At The Rectory
     Chapter 4. - The Wedding-Day
     Chapter 5. - A Cheerless Hearth
     Chapter 6. - In The Dead Of The Night
     Chapter 7. - Master And Slave
     Chapter 8. - The Last Chance

Captain Thomas
The Cold Embrace
My Daughters
The Mystery At Fernwood
Samuel Lowgood’s Revenge
The Lawyer’s Secret
     Chapter 1. - In A Lawyer’s Office
     Chapter 2. - In Which A Secret Is Revealed
     Chapter 3. - After The Honeymoon
     Chapter 4. - At Baldwin Court
     Chapter 5. - From London To Paris
     Chapter 6. - Horace Margrave’s Confession

My First Happy Christmas
Lost And Found
     Chapter 1. - Picture-Dealing
     Chapter 2. - Gin
     Chapter 3. - The Mark Upon Georgey’s Arm
     Chapter 4. - The Foster-Brothers
     Chapter 5. - The Gentleman Jockey Who Rode Devilshoof
     Chapter 6. - The King Is Dead: Long Live The King!
     Chapter 7. - Lost
     Chapter 8. - A New Life And A New Love
     Chapter 9. - A Precautionary Step
     Chapter 10. - The Die Is Cast
     Chapter 11. - Before The Wedding
     Chapter 12. - Gervoise Palgrave’s Curse
     Chapter 13. - The Sound Of The Waterfall
     Chapter 14. - An Uninvited Guest
     Chapter 15. - Hidden In The Dead Woman’s Hand
     Chapter 16. - The Detective Science
     Chapter 17. - Hunting Up The Past
     Chapter 18. - Ethel’s Visitor
     Chapter 19. - A Friend In Need
     Chapter 20. - Humphrey’s Confession
     Chapter 21. - Identified
     Chapter 22. - The Parting Of The Foster-Brothers
     Chapter 23. - The Last Of Gervoise Palgrave

Eveline’s Visitant
Found In The Muniment Chest
How I Heard My Own Will Read
The Scene-Painter’s Wife

 

Ralph The Bailiff

Chapter 1
The Funeral Of The Elder Son

A drizzling rain fell upon the long grass and the moss-grown tombstones of the churchyard of Olney, a village in Lincolnshire, Every now and then, beaten down by this incessant rain, a dead leaf fell from one of a row of sycamores, which bordered the low churchyard wall, and dropped heavily upon the graves beneath the trees.

No gleam of sunshine relieved the dull gray of the September sky.

A cluster of villagers and village children, grouped together at one angle of the irregular stone-wall, drew their wet clothes closer round them, and shivered as if this September had been January.

From one side of the churchyard sounded the monotonous voice of the curate, reading the funeral service.

At the white gate, on the other side of the church, waited three mourning-coaches, surrounded by another group of village children, who, regardless of the perpetual rain, stood staring open-mouthed at the long-tailed black horses and the solemn-visaged charioteers.

The funeral service ended, the chief mourner walked slowly through the churchyard, followed by the seven or eight gentlemen who had been present at the ceremony, The grief of that chief mourner was evident to all; his hollow eyes were dry and tearless, and he walked along the narrow path, looking straight before him, with an air of gloomy abstraction. He took his seat in one of the coaches, accompanied by his uncle, a gray-haired old farmer, and the village attorney.

“You must bear up — you must bear up, my dear Dudley,” said the gray-haired man, as the mourning-coach lumbered along the uneven paving of Olney High-street.

“I will, Uncle Richard; but it’s harder to bear than I ever thought it would be,” said the chief mourner; and to the surprise of his companions he let down the window at his side, and, putting out his head, looked back at the churchyard they had left. He remained in this position till a turn in the street completely hid the burial-ground from his view, and then drawing in his head, he closed the window with a short sigh.

“Poor boy, he wants to have a last look at his brother’s grave,” said the gray-haired man to the lawyer, while his nephew looked out of the carriage-window.

After this the chief mourner sat silent and motionless, looking fixedly out at the flat high-road, and the dripping leaves and shivering cattle in the wet fields.

He was a man of one-and-twenty, but looked much older.

He had a fair complexion, a small straight nose, very red, womanish lips, a slightly-receding chin, a low forehead, large blue eyes, and light auburn hair. He was rather handsome, and was generally said to have a most prepossessing countenance.

He was the younger son of the late Arthur Carleon, gentleman farmer, and proprietor of the Grey Farm, an estate of some importance in the estimation of the simple Olney folks.

The dwelling-house of this Grey Farm stood a mile away from the high-road, and the pathway leading to it lay by the side of a river — a narrow, dismal river, on which coal-barges went up and down between Grimsby and Lincoln.

The lands of the farm, which consisted of three hundred and eighty acres, lay flat and low on the border of this river, stretching down to the shelving bank, and only divided by this bank from the water, which constantly overflowed the meadows nearest to the river-side.

Along this bank the three mourning-coaches drove slowly and carefully, — a road dangerous at the best of times; at night doubly dangerous.

Half-an-hour’s driving brought the dismal cortège to the gates of the garden in front of the farmhouse. The mourners alighted, and silently assembled in a long, low, oak-panelled apartment, furnished in the ponderous fashion of half a century ago.

The Carleons were one of the oldest families in Lincolnshire. The house of the Grey Farm was filled with portraits of fine gentlemen, in doublets and hose; soldiers who had fallen at Bosworth and Flodden; cavaliers who had fought at Worcester, and brave soldiers and loyal gentlemen who had helped to beat the rebels on Marston Moor; but for the last hundred and fifty years the sword had been exchanged for the ploughshare, and the Carleons had been farmers from father to son.

The estate of the Grey Farm — which was so called from having originally belonged to a body of the order of Grey Friars, who built an abbey upon the land — was bought, in 1700, by a younger son of the house of Carleon, the elder branch of which becoming extinct, all other estates belonging to the family had fallen into Chancery, and the Carleons had sunk into simple gentlemen farmers.

Dudley Carleon walked to the wide fireplace, in which a dull flame struggled with the thick smoke from a mass of black coal. The young man leant against the angle of the high chimney-piece, and turned his face away from the other gentlemen, whom his gloomy silence considerably embarrassed.

A young woman, the principal female servant, dressed, like her master, in the deepest mourning, busied herself in handing about wine and cake. After taking it to the visitors, she offered it to Dudley Carleon; but the young man, hearing the jingle of the glasses at his elbow, looked up suddenly, and shook his head with an impatient gesture. He was very pale, and his eyes were surrounded by dark circles, which gave the light-blue eyes a strangely-haggard appearance.

One of the gentlemen, an attorney from Olney, read the will of the deceased. It was very simple. Martin Carleon had had nothing to bestow but the farm and homestead, on which he was born, and on which he had lived his short life of three-and-twenty years. He had died of an ague, produced, according to the doctors, by the fatal dampness of the Grey Farm. Young, handsome, vigorous, and athletic, the farmer had succumbed, after a lingering illness, under this painful and exhausting disease. He had never married, and Dudley was his only brother; so no one had ever felt any doubt as to who would inherit his property. The estate, though it had gone straight down from father to son for a hundred and fifty years, had never been entailed, and the will of Martin’s father had left no provision for the event of the young man’s dying childless; but the attachment between the brothers was known to have been so sincere, that this will was looked upon as a mere form. It was worded as everyone had expected:

“I, Martin Carleon, being at this time of sound mind, though weak in bodily health, do hereby give, will, and bequeath, to my beloved brother, Dudley Carleon, all those lands, tenements, and out-buildings, known as the Grey Farm, together with all live stock, farming implements,” &c. &c.

A few trifling legacies followed: a gold snuff-box to his uncle, Richard Weston, the gray-haired old man present at the reading of the will; his watch and chain to a young lady to whom he had been engaged to be married; and some bequests to the servants.

During the reading of the will the young man had never once lifted his head from its recumbent position against the angle of the chimney-piece; but when it was quite finished, and the visitors rose from their chairs, and approached Dudley, prior to taking their departure, he looked up at them with the same expression his face had worn at the gate of the churchyard — an expression that seemed to say, “What ought I to do next?”

“You are very kind,” he stammered in answer to the consolatory speeches addressed to him. “Yes, I will do my best to bear his loss.”

He said these words again and again, in an absent, helpless manner, and breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed upon the funeral party, and he was left alone with his uncle. For some time he remained silent, his face buried in his hands, while the old man sat looking at him furtively, as if almost afraid to speak. Presently he looked up and said, with strange abruptness, “Do you know if Agnes Marlow is very sorry?”

Agnes Marlow was the daughter of the Rector of Olney, and had been the promised wife of Martin Carleon.

“They say so at Olney,” answered Mr. Weston, “They say that she is very ill, and has seen no one but her father since your brother’s death.”

She came here the night before he died. When her father was sent for, she heard the message, and stole out of the house after him, and followed him down here. I shall never forget her white face as she stood at the door of Martin’s room. I shall never forget her white face — it haunts me to-day more than his.”

“My poor boy, these are silly fancies. Agnes Marlow’s grief has nothing to do with you. You did your duty to your poor brother from the first to the last.”

“That’s something,” muttered Dudley.

“Something! Everything. Martin was a good brother to you—”

Dudley Carleon shivered involuntarily.

“A very good brother. He had hard work to keep up your allowance at college, I can tell you, Dudley. But he always said that one farmer at a time was quite enough in the Carleon family, and that you should be a man of education, and a polished gentleman.”

“And a dependent on my brother’s bounty,” said Dudley bitterly.

“No, Dudley. Martin never thought anything he did for you a bounty or a favour.”

“Not Martin, perhaps; but other people thought so.”

Mr. Weston gave a little murmur of deprecation, and then, not knowing what further remark to make, lapsed into silence.

The old man was to dine and spend the night at the Grey Farm, as Thorpe Grange, his own house, was ten miles on the other side of Olney. The uncle and nephew dined in a room adjoining the oak parlour in which the will had been read, and were waited on by a maid-servant.

“Then you will manage the farm yourself, Dudley?” said Mr. Weston, as they sat over their wine, the room only lighted by a blazing fire, and the sky outside the windows darkening with the September twilight.

“Yes. I may not know as much of agriculture as poor Martin, but I know a little, and I can learn more. In short, I’ll accept the fate of the Carleons, and turn gentleman farmer.”

There’s only one thing I’m afraid of, Dudley—”

“And that is—”

“Your chance of falling ill of the ague and fever that killed Martin. The doctors attribute his illness to the air of the Grey Farm.”

“Then why is it that the men who live upon the premises, and are at work in the fields from sunrise to sunset, from the first of January to the thirty-first of December, have never fallen ill of the ague that killed poor Martin? Take my word for it, it was not the Grey Farm that caused my brother’s death; his constitution could not have been a strong one.”

“But such a tall, broad-chested, powerful young man,” said his uncle.

“Is often the first to sink under an illness which the ignorance of his medical attendant attributes to a wrong cause. Martin had lived on the Grey Farm for three-and-twenty years, and if this autumn has been cold and rainy, other autumns have been cold and rainy; if the farm has been half under water this year, it has been half under water many a year. It’s my opinion, Uncle Weston, that Martin’s life might have been saved if his doctor had not been an inefficient blockhead. That’s partly the cause of my grief for my brother. I consider him a sacrifice to the ignorance of two medical practitioners, and I shall never forgive myself for not having sent to London for a physician before it was too late.”

“What, you did send, then?”

“I telegraphed to London half an hour before he died.”

“My dear boy, you have done your duty. But tell me,” continued the old man, anxious to change the conversation, about your domestic arrangements. You retain all the servants?”

“Every labourer on the farm, every maid-servant in the kitchen. No servant ever leaves the Carleons — except for the churchyard.”

“That young woman who handed the wine round after the funeral — she looks rather superior to the rest — who is she?”

“O, I suppose it was Martha. She was my brother’s housekeeper. She is the sister of my bailiff, a very clever young man.”

“She is rather a handsome girl.”

“You think so? Too pale, too dark, too heavy. She has never been young, I think, that girl; I can always remember her equally grave and puritanical, with a pale solemn face and straight hair plastered over her forehead; but she is an excellent housekeeper.”

“She is a very young housekeeper, Dudley. I should be rather afraid of her, if I were you. Bachelor farmers sometimes marry their housekeepers, nowadays. It has grown into a fashion; and the women know it, and play their cards accordingly.”

“She must play a deeper game than I give her credit for, clever as she is, if she wants to catch me,” said Dudley. “I have a little of the ambition of the old Carleons, and there is no record of any of them having married their servants.”

A little after ten o’clock Dudley Carleon led his uncle up the wide oak staircase to the apartment prepared for him.

To reach this room they had to pass through a long corridor, on one side of which was a row of solid oak doors, leading into the bedrooms. Before the first of these doors Dudley Carleon stopped, with a ghastly face, and leaned for support against the wall behind him.

“Martin’s room,” he muttered hoarsely; “the room he died in. This is the very spot on which Agnes Marlow stood on the night of my brother’s death. Talk of ghosts,” he said with a hollow laugh; “if you can fancy a corpse galvanised into life, you can fancy how she looked.”

“Come, come, my dear boy—”

“Don’t pity me. I’m a coward — a miserable, superstitious coward. I never thought this was in me.”

The young man brushed his hand across his forehead, drew himself to his fullest height, and walked before his uncle to the end of the corridor. He opened a door, led the way into a comfortable, old-fashioned apartment, communicating with another room of about the same size. Fires had been lighted in both bedchambers, and a cheerful blaze was reflected in every panel of the wainscot. Richard Weston, farmer, slept as well on the night after his eldest nephew’s funeral as he always slept under his own roof at the Grange. Once or twice, however, in the dismal hours of the long autumnal night, he was awoke by the monotonous step of the new owner of the Grey Farm, pacing up and down the oak floor of his bedroom. “Poor fellow,” muttered the old man, as he buried his head in the pillows and dropped off again to sleep— “poor fellow, what a sincere affection there has been between those two boys!”

 

Chapter 2
A Shadow That Hears

For a considerable time there was a great deal of curiosity felt in Olney about Dudley Carleon, and the way in which he would manage his newly-acquired property. Everybody knew that the Carleons were not rich, and that the Grey Farm required a great amount of expenditure before it would produce much money. The land wanted draining, but poverty had prevented this being ever effectually done; and the owners of the land had dragged on, through good harvests and bad harvests, without ever enriching themselves or their children, and only too glad if they could pay their way. How, then,” asked the inhabitants of Olney, “would Dudley Carleon succeed with the property out of which his father and his brother had obtained so little?”

But the Olney people soon confessed that Dudley Carleon was by no means a bad farmer. He set vigorously to work, and with small expenses contrived to make great improvements. Useless hedges and old trees were ruthlessly done away with; ditches were dug in the low fields, and the water carried back to the river from which it came, while a superior breed of cattle fed in the dry pastures to those that had grazed in the sloppy meadows during Martin’s management. In short, to the surprise of everybody, the young Cantab seemed to be a better farmer than his brother had been.

But when complimented on his good management, Mr. Carleon was wont to say that he himself had very little part in the improvements on the Grey Farm, since they were the work of Ralph, his bailiff, and his greatest treasure.

If this remark happened to be made by Dudley while showing a neighbour over the farm, a closely-cropped black head, a pale face, and two gray eyes would generally emerge from behind some barn or out-building, or look down from the top of some haystack, and Ralph, the farm-bailiff, himself would appear, tugging at the close-cropped black hair in acknowledgment of his master’s praise.

It seemed to Dudley Carleon’s acquaintance rather a peculiarity in the manners and customs of this farm-bailiff that wherever his master happened to be there he was to be found. This was, of course, purely accidental; but it was an accident of such frequent occurrence that it became a subject for observation. If Dudley Carleon gave a dinner-party, Ralph the bailiff took upon himself the office of butler, and waited at table, bringing with him into the dining-room a powerful odour of hay and beans, and generally doing some small damage to the service of old china which had belonged to his master’s great-grandmother. It was perfectly obvious that the awkwardness of the farm-servant gave considerable annoyance to the polished host; it was still more obvious that he hesitated to show such annoyance; he appeared, indeed, to consult the feelings of his bailiff before those of his guests or himself.

Sleek, dark, and pale, Ralph, the treasure of servants, would stand behind his master’s chair, listening attentively to every word that was said.

If on a summer’s evening Dudley lounged with a friend smoking his cigar on the grass-plot in front of the house, the farm-bailiff suddenly became a gardener, and was busy transplanting geraniums or setting cuttings of pinks. If, on a dark night, the young man accompanied an acquaintance part of the way back to Olney, the farm-bailiff was always at his heels ready to open the gates or show the way with a lantern. If Dudley, on a Sunday, after church, stopped to talk to his neighbours in the churchyard, Ralph the bailiff, with his sister Martha on his arm, was generally to be seen looking at a tombstone, or reading an epitaph, a few paces from his master. But the young farmer was constantly praising his servant’s fidelity and usefulness, and generally wound up his encomiums by declaring that if Ralph were ever to take it into his head to leave the Grey Farm, he should be a ruined man.

Ralph the bailiff, always appearing at this juncture, would generally say, as he pulled off his hat and tugged at his sleek black hair, Lord, Muster Dudley, I’ll never leave ’ee.”

Ralph, his master said, was very much above his station. He could read and write; and when the other labourers were lolling of a night over the kitchen-fire, smoking their pipes, or pulling the ears of the great sheep-dog, the bailiff would shut himself up in his own room and devote himself to his education. Dudley and Martin had taught him a good deal, when as boys they had lounged together on summer evenings watching the labourers at their work; for Ralph the bailiff had been born on the estate, as well as his sister Martha, Dudley’s housekeeper.

The new master of the farm had given a little sitting-room in the servants’ wing to Martha and her brother as their own peculiar property, and here of an evening after dark, the two used to sit, she at her needlework, he seated before a great old-fashioned desk that had been his mother’s, writing or reading.

The brother and sister were much alike, both in person and manners. Both pale and dark, with heavy features, straight, sleek black hair, and deep-set gray eyes; both tall and slim; both grave, reserved, and silent; orderly in their habits; precise in their way of speaking. They were not much liked by the other servants, but they were very much respected, and everyone of the farm-labourers knew that it was wiser to offend Mr. Dudley Carleon than to run the risk of displeasing Ralph the bailiff.

Actual master of all the men, possessed of unlimited executive power, Ralph Purvis, the bailiff, walked with a steady and a stealthy step, day by day, over the Grey Farm.

Wherever the owner of the land went, full across his path fell the shadow of his confidential servant; whomsoever he spoke to, or whomsoever he saw, there was Ralph the bailiff to hear his words and to watch his looks.

As time went by the inhabitants, of Olney began to say that Dudley Carleon had changed month by month, week by week, day by day, and hour by hour, since the September morning on which his elder brother had been buried. He had grown thin and pale, fitful and moody in his manners, reserved and uncertain in his address.

“His grief for his brother’s death is really absurd,” said the gentlemen.

“He ought to form a new attachment — and marry,” said the ladies.

But nothing seemed further from the young farmer’s thoughts than the holy state of matrimony. Secluded in the great stone mansion, he saw very little society of any kind, but sat moodily over his solitary hearth when the weather was bad, or, on fine evenings, strolled listlessly about the farm, talking over the business of the next day with Ralph the bailiff.

Three years had passed since the funeral of Martin Carleon; and the third September after that on which the drizzling rain had drenched the scarves and hatbands of the mourners, and the thin garments of the village children, drew to a cold and dismal close.

On the last day of the month, Mr. Theodore Broughton, the only solicitor resident in Olney, dined with Dudley Carleon. He had ridden over to the Grey Farm, to talk about some law-business he had on hand for the young farmer, and Dudley had persuaded him to stop to dinner. The two gentlemen dined at five o’clock, in the oak dining-room — a cold and draughty apartment, which the largest fire that could be piled up in the wide grate could never thoroughly warm. This oak dining-room was lighted, like the drawing-room, by three windows, two of which were situated in the front of the house, opening into the garden, while the third faced the river, and looked straight into the farmyard. There was very little attempt at refinement in the arrangements of this great, dreary, rambling farmhouse; a litter of noisy pigs ran about close under the dining-room window, and three or four huge draught-horses stood pastern deep in wet straw a few paces from where the gentlemen sat at dinner.

According to the usual custom when there was company at the Grey Farm, Ralph the bailiff made his appearance, wearing an old dress-coat of his master’s, and carrying a napkin over his arm. This apparent attempt at style was so entirely foreign to the ordinary habits of the Carleons, who had always lived in the most unpretending manner, that everybody wondered at and disliked it.

“That awkward, dark-faced bailiff never came into the house in Martin Carleon’s time,” the visitors at the Grey Farm would say, “and now he’s always sneaking about the premises.”

This evening of the 30th of September the bailiff’s presence seemed peculiarly disagreeable to Theodore Broughton, the lawyer. He wished to talk of business, and he disliked doing so while Ralph stood with a listening countenance at his master’s elbow. He suggested to Dudley that they should wait upon themselves, as no doubt the bailiff’s presence was needed about the farm; but neither Ralph’s master nor Ralph himself would take the hint. The young man was evidently embarrassed, and the bailiff held his ground at his master’s elbow with a dogged and determined look in his dark face.

“The truth of the matter is,” said the lawyer, “that I want to have a few words with you, about that business — and—”

“O, ah! to be sure. — You hear, Purvis, Mr. Broughton wants a little private conversation with me. Leave us.”

Ralph the bailiff stood quite still, twisting the dinner-napkin round and round upon his arm, and looking from his master to the visitor, and from the visitor back to his master.

“You hear,” repeated Dudley Carleon, turning very pale, but with a vivid flash of anger in his large blue eyes; “leave us!”

“Very well, sir;” and with a stiff bow to his master, Ralph the bailiff left the room. He shut the door after him rather loudly as he went out; but two minutes afterwards Theodore Broughton, who sat opposite to it, saw it reopened by a cautious hand and set a little ajar.

“You have listeners in this house, Carleon,” said the lawyer, as he rose from the table, and going over to the door, shut it securely. “I don’t like speaking against another man’s servants, but I really can’t help saying that I’ve a great dislike to your bailiff.”

“What, Ralph Purvis? My dear Broughton, he’s an inestimable fellow. The best bailiff in the county, and faithful to a degree.”

“Faithful to the degree of officiousness, I think,” muttered the lawyer, shrugging his shoulders; and then, changing the conversation, he discussed with his client the business that had brought him to the farm. After this had been satisfactorily settled, they spoke of indifferent topics, and the lawyer by and by told Dudley of the many speculations made by the feminine inhabitants of Olney as to the causes of his determined bachelorhood. “In short, my dear Carleon,” he said, laughing, “you ought to make an excellent match; and that reminds me of an idea that has often occurred to me, which idea is, that Agnes Marlow, the rector’s daughter, would be the very girl to make you a good wife.”

Dudley Carleon started as if he had been stung. A cold perspiration broke out upon his forehead, which he wiped with a trembling hand, as he said hesitatingly, “O no, no. Agnes Marlow is the very last person — the very last. Didn’t you know of her engagement to my poor brother Martin?”

“Yes, I was perfectly aware they were to have been married; that appears to me the very reason why she would be a suitable match for you. It would seem as if you were fulfilling your poor brother’s wish in making her mistress of the Grey Farm.”

“Agnes Marlow’s heart is buried in Martin Carleon’s grave. Do you know, Broughton, I have a very strong suspicion that her grief for my brother’s death had a fatal effect upon her intellect, and that she — that she has not — been — quite right — in her mind since — that — occurrence.”

Dudley Carleon said these words slowly, and as if with an effort.

“What in mercy’s name has given you this idea?”

“Because she has evinced such an evident dislike to me ever since I have been owner of the property. As if — as if — really — she hated me for being master of the Grey Farm.”

“Pshaw, my dear Carleon; pure fancy on your part, I am sure.”

“Be it how it may, Agnes Marlow is the last person I should ever dream of marrying.”

“As you will. I can’t attempt to choose a wife for you; but what I say, and what everybody else says, is, that you decidedly ought to marry. What a dreary life you must lead in this dismal old house, with not a soul to speak to but that sleek black bailiff of yours, and his equally sleek and black sister, your housekeeper! Only think, man, how the cheerful face of a pretty young wife would brighten the head of this long dining-table!”

“Well, well; I’ll see about it,” said Dudley, as he and his friend rose from the table. As they were about to leave the room, Mr. Carleon poured out a glass of brandy from a bottle on the sideboard, and drained it at a draught. While he was doing this, Theodore Broughton’s eyes wandered carelessly round the walls of the room, looking at the old pictures. In doing this, his glance happened to rest for a moment on the window opening into the farmyard. It was quite dark, but in the gray obscurity he distinctly saw a pair of gleaming eyes staring in through a pane of glass, and he saw also a coarse red hand, which had lifted the window-sash about three inches from the sill.

“I told you, Carleon, that you had listeners about the place,” he said, raising his voice so as to be heard by the person without; “look at that window.”

But when the lawyer and Dudley Carleon reached the window in question, there was nothing to be seen, only in the half-darkness of the farmyard a figure was visible, leading the draught-horses to the stable.

“I thought so,” said Theodore Broughton; “the listener was your bailiff, Ralph Purvis. I thought I could not be mistaken in the glitter of those eyes. Dudley Carleon, my profession is one which throws me into contact with strange people; it may have made me suspicious; it may have made me only cautious. All I say to you, as your friend and legal adviser, is this — beware of that man!”

“My dear fellow, I have every respect for your legal acumen, but you are quite wrong. I would trust Ralph Purvis with untold gold.”

“Trust him with all the mines of California if you like; but do not trust him with your secrets.”

Dudley Carleon’s face, pale before, suddenly flushed scarlet. “Good heavens!” said the lawyer, “do you know that I consider the fellow such a listener and a sneak, that did I not see him yonder, out of reach of hearing, leading in those horses, I should expect to turn round and find him at my elbow?”

“Martha has taken coffee into the drawing-room, sir,” said a voice a few paces behind the two gentlemen.

Dudley and the lawyer turned sharply round. Ralph the bailiff was standing a little way within the open door at the other end of the room.

“I was leading the horses in, sir, when I saw you two gentlemen at the window; so I gave them to William to hold, and ran round here to tell you coffee was waiting.”

When Dudley and his visitor went into the drawing-room they found Martha Purvis busy with the cups and saucers on a little table near the fire. Prim and demure, dressed in sombre gray, and with straight black hair banded tightly under her white cap, she moved about in the fire-lit room as softly as if she had been the ghostly reproduction of one of the dark pictures on the wainscoted wall. Wherever she moved in the flickering light, she threw a shadow on the floor or the walls; and grim and distorted as this shadow always looked wherever it fell, it seemed to Dudley Carleon to have a deeper blackness when it was cast upon him, the master of the Grey Farm.

The lawyer’s horse was brought round to the front-door as the timepiece in the drawing-room struck eight. Dudley followed his friend out into the garden; Ralph Purvis stood holding the bridle in his hand.

Theodore Broughton shrugged his shoulders at the sight of the farm-bailiff, but sprang into the saddle without saying a word.

“I will walk a little way with you, Broughton,” said Dudley, as the lawyer bade him good-night.

“Shall I come with you to open the gate, sir?” asked the bailiff.

“No, I can do it myself.”

It was quite dark, and a thick mist rose from the river by which the two men went, the lawyer walking his horse, and Dudley Carleon holding the rein as he guided the animal along the narrow bank.

When they had reached the gate which marked the boundary of the farm on the Olney side, the young man bade his friend good-night, and walked slowly homewards.

A dark figure rose from the shelving river-bank, and stood by his side.

“Can I have a word with thee, muster?” asked Ralph the bailiff.

You can speak, I suppose?” said Dudley without looking up or evincing the least surprise at his servant’s sudden appearance on the bank.

“But will ’ee listen?”

“Yes,” answered his master, walking slowly on, his head bent down, and his hands in his pockets.

“And will ’ee answer what I ask thee?”

“Perhaps!”

“Maybe I’d better not speak here; one of the men might be in yon fields, and listen—”

“True, that might spoil your market.”

“Where shall I speak, then, Muster Carleon?”

“In your own room, at the top of the back-stairs. But what can you have to say to me to-night?”

Never thee mind what it be, Muster Carleon. Will ’ee hear it? Yes or no; or shall I go into Olney and say it to yon young lady, that—”

“Do you want me to throw you into that river?”

“I’m not afeard, sir,” said Ralph Purvis, with a grin; “it’d make too much noise in the neighbourhood.”

Dudley Carleon was silent for the rest of the way back to the house. He walked slowly, with his hat slouched over his eyes, looking neither to the right nor the left; the bailiff, keeping a few paces in advance of him, opened the gates as he approached, and fell back respectfully for him to pass. As the owner of the Grey Farm crossed the hall and opened the drawing-room door, he turned round and said to his bailiff, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the domestic servants about the place:

“Before you go to bed, Purvis, get your accounts ready for me; I’ll come to your room and look them over.”

The autumn winds swept with dismal voices, and strange, inarticulate, complaining cries, over the long flat stubbled fields of the Grey Farm. The autumn mists rose in these bare fields and the low meadows, and spread a ghostly veil over the land, under which the slow river crawled onwards to the distant sea. There seemed to be, in the nature of this deep and quiet river, something akin to that of Ralph Purvis the bailiff. Like him it was dark and silent; like him, stealthy of foot and changeless in purpose, it dogged your heels when you were unaware, and crept stealthily after you through the obscurity of the night. Winding and tortuous in its ways, like him, you came upon it as you often came upon him, where you least expected to meet it; and the aspect of it, as the aspect of the dark-faced bailiff, filled you with an instinctive and unreasonable distrust. Wretched countrywomen had stolen down to the dismal bank and drowned themselves quietly in reedy inlets where the water was deepest; twenty miles from the Grey Farm a son had stabbed his father to the heart, and thrown the body, under the thick darkness, into the treacherous tide, that rolled back the corpse and left it in the morning light lying stark and ghastly upon the river bank. Horrible things were associated with this dismal water, and as it wound and twisted close under the walls of the gaunt stone mansion, it seemed to give a gloomier aspect even to the dark pile of buildings that composed the dwelling-house of the Grey Farm.

In the dead of the night, a light was visible to the bargemen drifting with the tide down the winding river, a light burning in a small window at the back of Dudley Carleon’s house.

That lighted window belonged to the sitting-room of Ralph Purvis the bailiff.

On the floor of this room lay a man with his pale face splashed and smeared with the blood oozing from a cut on his forehead. Another man, with a white face and angry blue eyes, bent over him, with his knee upon his chest, and one hand twisted in the folds of his coarse woollen neckerchief.

“You may kill me, and welcome, Muster Carleon,” gasped Ralph the bailiff; “but so sure as I live that’s the price of my holding my tongue.”

“Spy, sneak, listener! get up and wash your face. Tomorrow you and your sister shall start for London. I’ll follow you in a week.”

“And you’ll give us our price, Muster Carleon?” asked Ralph Purvis, picking himself up, and deliberately wiping the blood from his face with a red cotton handkerchief.

“To the uttermost farthing, extortioner,” said Dudley Carleon, as he opened the door of the little sitting-room with a cautious hand, and stole down the flight of stairs leading to his own side of the house.

 

Chapter 3
The Visitor At The Rectory

The June sunshine gilded the dingy bosom of the river, and the grass grew long and luxuriant in the meadows of the Grey Farm, when Dudley Carleon returned from a long visit to the metropolis, and resumed his quiet and monotonous life of gentleman farmer. He had been away from home for the best part of the winter and of the spring, only coming down to Lincolnshire now and then for a few days, or sometimes for a week at a time, and then returning to London. The bailiff’s sister had left the farm for a situation, in York, of a lighter character, as her brother said she had overworked herself in that great house; and an old woman from Olney had been elevated into the post of housekeeper at the Grey Farm.

Dudley Carleon appeared if possible more gloomy when he returned than before he went away, and he certainly seemed more than ever under the thrall of his inseparable retainer, Ralph the bailiff.

Side by side the master and man walked slowly along the river’s bank, or round the great corn-fields, or paused at a gate leading into a meadow shut up against the hay harvest, to calculate the value of the crops. Side by side they loitered of an evening, watching the cattle grazing by the water-side, and whoever happened to hear their conversation would generally hear Ralph the bailiff telling his master what a valuable property he could make of the farm if he had only money enough for improvements.

A few days after Dudley’s return Ralph was for once in a way absent from the premises. His master had sent him to the market-town, ten miles distant, to transact some business relating to the farm, and he was not likely to get back till nightfall.

There was a public right of way through some green lanes, and across some corn-fields and meadows on the farm. This led from a village at a little distance into Olney. In one of these green lanes, in which some of the draught-horses on the farm were tethered, Dudley Carleon sauntered, book in hand, as the clocks of the distant village churches struck three.

The master of the Grey Farm, always looking downwards as he walked, took no notice whatever of the wild roses in the hedges, nor of the cowslips upon the grassy banks; but he was suddenly startled into looking up by the sound of the barking of a dog a few hundred yards from him.

Following with his eyes the direction of this sound, he saw perched upon a green mound, under the hawthorn bushes near him, something so bright in colour, so radiant in appearance, so airy and fluttering in motion, that he might almost have mistaken the something for a new and luxuriant sister of the gay wild-flowers in the hedge. But coming a little nearer to the strange blossom, he found himself face to face with a young lady, dressed in pink muslin and a gipsy hat.

She was almost childlike in appearance, and excessively pretty. She was brilliantly fair, and her pink cheeks were set in a framework of showery golden curls, which trembled and glistened in the summer breezes and the bright June sunshine. Her eyes were of a tender blue, large and soft, and expressive of the most innocent candour. She was very small, and all she wore, from the lace which fell about her tiny straw hat to the flowers of her soft and airy muslin dress, floated about her with a peculiar grace. A fairy dressed by a Parisian milliner could not surpass this exquisite, fragile creature.

“Would you be so good,” she said, “as to tell me the way to Olney? I insisted on rambling out to-day by myself, and have been sufficiently punished for my obstinacy in having lost my way. I have been sitting here very patiently for the last hour, hoping to see someone pass.”

Her voice was music itself, and her smile when she spoke made her as bewitching as she was lovely.

Dudley told her that he was going towards Olney, and begged to be allowed to escort her part of the way there. There was something so unmistakably gentlemanly in his address, that after one brief moment of hesitation the young lady accepted his offer; and they strolled on side by side, the dog running backwards and forwards before them, barking merrily.

She told him, in the course of their walk, that she was visiting at the rectory, that her name was Jenny Trevor, that she was an orphan, that Mr. Marlow was her guardian, and Agnes Marlow her dearest friend.

They had to pass through a field close to Dudley Carleon’s house, and then out to the river-bank which led to Olney.

As they came to the first gate, by the waterside, a man on horseback came slowly towards them, and on approaching them, proved to be Ralph the bailiff.

He slid off his horse on seeing his master, and leading the animal by the bridle, came up to the gate, which he opened for Dudley and Miss Trevor.

“You are home early, Purvis,” said Dudley.

“Yes, sir; matters were managed quicker than I thought for, and I wouldn’t loiter. I’ve settled with the haymakers for next week, sir.”

“That’s right.”

Ralph the bailiff still lingered, bridle in hand, by the open gate; and from under his black lashes the gray eyes looked furtively, but searchingly, at Jenny Trevor.

Dudley seemed strangely embarrassed. He glanced from the bailiff to the young girl, as if hesitating what to do; and then said, with considerable confusion of manner:

“I think, Miss Trevor, I need scarcely bore you with my society any longer. The next gate but one opens into the high-road, and then you are in a straight line with Olney.”

He raised his hat, and, with a glance of surprise, she bowed, wished him good-day, and walked onwards.

“Now then,” he said to Ralph the bailiff as soon as Miss Trevor was out of hearing.

“Now then, Muster Carleon,” echoed Ralph: “what a pretty young lass yon is!”

His master made no reply to this observation, but leaned listlessly with his elbows on the top bar of the gate and his chin in his hands.

“Thee and her seemed mighty friendly, too,” said Ralph presently, with a grin.

“What’s that to you?”

“Maybe nothing — maybe something.”

“She is a young lady staying at the rectory,” said Dudley sulkily, and as if every word were being wrung from him perforce; “and I never saw her in my life till this afternoon. She asked me to show her the way to Olney, and I did so. Will that do?”

“Pretty near. She must be rather a forward lass, though, to be so uncommon friendly.”

A week after this Ralph Purvis left the Grey Farm, and Dudley Carleon became a constant visitor at Olney Rectory. It was strange that in his visits to the rectory he rarely met with Agnes Marlow. If by any chance he happened to find her at home, she would sit staring vacantly out at the window, never addressing him, and only answering by monosyllables when he spoke to her, and she always took the earliest opportunity of leaving the room on some pretext or other. Jenny Trevor at first complained to her friend of this; but Agnes was so reserved upon this subject, that Jenny — who was always a little overawed by the rector’s daughter, with her cold serious black eyes and her careworn face — dared not press it further.

“We are not accountable for our prejudices, Jenny,” she would say; “I do not like Dudley Carleon.”

“But you have no reason to dislike him, have you, Agnes?”

“None — that I can reconcile with my duty as a Christian. I am the daughter of a minister of the Gospel of Christ; I go to church three times on a Sunday; I visit the sick, and I give my money to the poor; but for all that I may not be a Christian; perhaps I am not, when Dudley Carleon is concerned. Do not talk to me — do not question me, Jenny. I hate him!”

Her dark eyes shone with a feverish lustre, and she clenched her slender wasted hand as she repeated, “God have mercy upon me, and upon his soul! I hate him!”

 

Chapter 4
The Wedding-Day

The Olney people were surprised to miss the dark face of Ralph Purvis from among the haymakers in Dudley Carleon’s meadows; but the young man told his acquaintance that he had been induced to purchase a small farm in Buckinghamshire, and that he had intrusted his bailiff with the management of it.

Ralph had been a hard and a churlish taskmaster; he was regretted by no one, unless indeed by his employer, who received about once a week a letter, directed in a small cramped hand, bearing the postmark of a village in Buckinghamshire. Every week, too, Dudley Carleon rode into Olney for a post-office order, payable to Ralph Purvis; and those who watched the young man’s movements began to say that his new farm was costing him more money than it would ever bring him back. But before the harvest there was a talk of his marrying a young lady with a fortune, or at least what was called a fortune in Olney. Jenny Trevor had six thousand pounds.

She would be of age in September, and she was, people said, engaged to be married to Dudley Carleon.

Was she engaged to him? No. She suffered him to follow her about as some sulky but faithful dog follows a beloved master. She allowed herself to fall into a sort of tacit compact with him; she neither repelled his silent attentions, nor withdrew herself from his society, however often he came to the rectory.

“I cannot help it,” she said one day to Agnes; “he is in the drawing-room at this moment; I know it, though I have neither seen nor heard him come in; and I must go to him, though I do not wish to go. What am I to do, Agnes?”

“Come with me to Scarborough; you know that I am going to-morrow, and shall not return here for two or three months. Choose, Jenny, whether you will come with me or stay here with papa to become the wife of that man.”

“Agnes, I will go with you!”

The two girls set to work immediately to pack their trunks, and made all their arrangements for starting by the next morning’s express for Scarborough; but that evening, seated in the dusky twilight in the deep bow-window of the rectory drawing-room, Dudley Carleon made Jenny Trevor promise that she would be his wife the very day on which she came of age.

After he had left the house, Agnes Marlow found her friend sobbing hysterically, with her head upon the sill of the open window, and the scented blossoms of a clematis trailing over her curls.

“Jenny, what is the matter?”

“I must stay here, Agnes; I cannot go with you to-morrow.”

“You are your own mistress, Jenny, and must choose for yourself. God help you, if you forget what I have said.”

Jenny’s loud sobs were her only answer to these ominous words.

Before a sheaf of golden corn had fallen under the sickle, Mr. Marlow had married Dudley Carleon and Jenny Trevor in Olney Church.

Her wedding-day was that on which she came of age, as she had promised her lover. Everything was arranged very quietly, not to say secretly, and by Dudley Carleon’s wish no intimation of the event had been sent to Agnes Marlow.

It was one of the glorious and burning summer days so often seen at the beginning of autumn. The lazy cattle slept in the flat meadows, and the narrow river dragged its slow course under a hot yellow haze. The corn-fields were gaudy with vivid patches of purple and scarlet, and the golden grain scarcely stirred in the still air. The bride looked lovely, with her simple robes of lace and muslin fluttering round her, and with her golden ringlets shining in the sun.

“A handsome couple!” said the villagers grouped about the church-porch. Everyone seemed in high spirits. Even the bridegroom had thrown off his habitual moodiness, and pride and triumph shone in his sombre blue eyes. One sinister event, however, threw a cloud over the conclusion of the ceremony. As Dudley Carleon turned from the altar to lead his young bride into the vestry, he found himself face to face with a glistening tablet of white marble — a tablet so newly put up upon the wall that the mortar at the edges was still damp, and the workman’s tools lay in the pew beneath:

“Sacred to the Memory of MARTIN CARLEON
Obiit September 24, 1849, ætat. 23
This monument is erected by his affectionate and sorrowful brother
Dudley Carleon.”

The village stonemason, an idle and dilatory man, had received the order for this tablet nearly a year before, and had only completed his work upon the eve of Mr. Carleon’s wedding-day.

When the wedding-party returned to the rectory, they found a fly from the station standing at the gate.

“Can Agnes have returned?” said Mr. Marlow.

Dudley’s face had paled at the sight of the tablet upon the church wall, but it grew still whiter now.

“Jenny,” he said, clutching the little gloved hand that lay upon his strong arm, “Agnes Marlow is a madwoman; whatever she says to you, remember that.”

“Dudley, what do you mean?”

“Good heavens! How do I know what she may not say? Do you suppose that I have not perceived her prejudice against me?”

Pale and careworn, with her dress dusty and disordered from her hasty journey, and her long dark hair falling loosely about her thin face, Agnes Marlow met the bridal party in the sunlit hall.

She did not speak either to her father or to Dudley, but grasping the bride’s slender wrist with a convulsive strength, she said:

“Am I too late — am I too late, after all? Are you married?”

“Yes,” said Dudley firmly, looking at her with an impatient frown.

She seemed neither to hear nor to see him.

“Jenny,” she repeated, “are you married?”

“Yes,” answered the terror-stricken girl.

“O, that I should be too late; that I should not be told of this in time! But come, come with me, Jenny, to my room.”

“Jenny, Mrs. Carleon, I forbid you to do so!” cried her husband.

“Forbid her!” echoed Agnes, with a harsh, discordant laugh, turning her large lustrous eyes for the first time towards Dudley Carleon. “Shall I tell her here, at the foot of these stairs, before the servants — those people round the door — before my father — before you? Shall I tell her that which I have to tell her before a crowd of witnesses, Dudley Carleon?”

He turned away from the wan and burning eyes, and taking her father aside, whispered to him.

“Come, Jenny, come!” cried Agnes.

She dragged rather than led the wretched girl up the stairs into her own room, locked the door, and then sank exhausted into a chair by the bed. The windows were open, the birds singing loudly among the honeysuckle and jasmine clustering round the house; and through the open windows a flood of sunshine streamed upon the pale faces of the two girls.

Jenny fell on her knees sobbing, and clinging to the rector’s daughter.

“O, Agnes, have pity upon me! remember it is my wedding-day.”

“I cannot pity you, Jenny. I can remember nothing. I tell you my heart is not wide enough to hold anything but hatred — hatred of him.”

“Agnes!”

“If I crush out your heart as my heart has been crushed — if I am to blight your life as mine has been blighted — if he is as dear to you as his dead brother was to me, still I must speak. Do you know what he is — this man — whom you have sworn to love and cherish?”

“Agnes!”

“Jenny Carleon — O, misery, that I should have to call you by that name! — when I received my father’s letter this morning, telling me of your purposed marriage, I thought I should go mad; but do not judge me by my disordered looks or by my bewildered manner. Listen to me, you most ill-advised, unhappy girl. I cannot tell you what I know, I can only tell you what I believe so firmly, that if my words were to lay you dead at my feet, I would say them rather than see you pass over the threshold of that man’s house.”

“O, Agnes! my wedding-day — my wedding-day!”

She held out her entreating hands as if she would have warded off the cruel words as she would ward a blow.

“Dudley Carleon poisoned his brother Martin!”

One long piteous wail escaped from the white lips of the bride, as she fell prostrate at the feet of Agnes.

“I have no proof of this, or I would have made that proof ring through the length and breadth of the land. I have no proof, but I have — conviction!

Jenny lifted her white face from the floor, and dragging herself on to her knees, once more looked up at the speaker. “No proof?”

“None. But I know it — I know it! I was at the Grey Farm on the night of Martin Carleon’s death. I saw that man’s ghastly face and shaking hand as he stood by his brother’s bedside meddling with the medicine-bottles. It was from his hand the draught was taken which was to allay, but which only increased, the mortal sickness, and tormenting thirst, and burning fever. His dark shadow was never lifted from that weary bed. Fidelity! Devotion! Yes, the fidelity of a murderer to his deadly purpose; the devotion of the executioner to his unconscious victim. I tell you, child, our eyes met only once upon that awful night, and in that one glance I saw and knew his guilt. I know it: and he knows that I know it!”

“Agnes, Agnes!”

“Martin Carleon died from the effects of slow poison administered by his brother. Now go back to your husband. I have done with you, Mrs. Carleon!”

“O, Agnes! how cruel, how heartless, how pitiless and unchristian! And is it by a vague suspicion — an idea as unfounded as it is hideous — that you would brand an innocent man? I pity you, Agnes, for being the victim to so horrible a delusion.”

She rose from her knees, and going to the toilet-table, wiped away her blinding tears, and rearranged her hair with a hand that scarcely trembled. As she did this, she watched the reflection of Agnes Marlow’s haggard face in the glass before which she stood. She began to think that Dudley Carleon must indeed be right, and that grief had driven the Rector’s daughter mad. Agnes sat on the little white-curtained bed, with hollow eyes, following Jenny’s rapid movements at the dressing-table.

“God help us both!” she murmured, clasping her attenuated hands; “God help us, and lend us His light to guide ns in this blind, dark world. Something stronger than myself possessed me, and I could not keep silence.”

 

Chapter 5
A Cheerless Hearth

Agnes Marlow returned to Scarborough. Her health was broken, her spirits gone, and there were people in Olney who shared Dudley Carleon’s opinion, and believed that her reason had been in some degree unsettled by her lover’s untimely death.

The first four months of Jenny Carleon’s married life passed peacefully away. Dudley was a kind and an attentive husband, and there was no fault whatever to be found with him in his new position. The Grey Farm was certainly rather a dull abode for Jenny, whose life had been chiefly spent at a boarding-school at the West-end of London; but she had her piano, her books and drawing-materials, a pet dog, and an old gray pony, on which she rode about her husband’s fields while he superintended the men; for since Ralph’s departure Dudley Carleon had devoted himself entirely to the management of his farm.

Not a word had ever been uttered by Mrs. Carleon on the subject of that stormy interview between herself and Agnes Marlow. Often in the dead of the night she awoke suddenly by the side of her sleeping husband, with the echo of those terrible words ringing in her ears, as if someone had just spoken them at her pillow. She had never for one moment thought of them except as of the hallucination of an enfeebled mind; but she could no more forget them than she could forget her own name.

Sometimes seated alone in the twilight, by the fire in the low oak parlour, surrounded by the distorted shadows of the furniture upon the dark panelled walls, thinking of things as far away from the scene of her bridal morning as it is possible for one thing to be from another — in a moment, in a breath, a hissing whisper at her ear would shape with supernatural distinctness these two horrible sentences:

“Dudley Carleon poisoned his brother Martin.”

Martin Carleon died from the effects of slow poison administered by his brother.”

But this was not the worst; for she could find that by degrees she grew to be perpetually repeating these words to herself involuntarily, as one repeats a line of verse from mere absence of mind. At her needlework, busy with her pencils and colours — even at the piano — she caught herself silently reiterating these hateful phrases. They would fit themselves to the notes of her favourite pieces of music, and she trembled to think that one day she might unconsciously utter them aloud.

The new year came, cold and rainy. The weather kept Jenny a prisoner to the house. Dudley was often out. She had few visitors, for her Olney acquaintances dreaded the wet walk on the muddy bank of the river.

“Why had she married Dudley Carleon?”

She sometimes asked herself this question, as if she had suddenly awoke from a long sleep to find herself in a strange country.

She did not love him, she did not even admire him, but she had allowed him to gain so strong an influence over her, that it was only now and then she remembered this, — only now and then she asked herself wonderingly, “Why did I marry him?”

She was not unhappy, — only sometimes lonely and dreary in the gaunt stone house, with its great comfortless rooms and low oaken ceilings, that always seemed to her as if they would some day slowly descend and crush her to death.

The light-hearted girl grew grave and quiet amongst the shadows of the solemn farmhouse. Dudley, kind as he was, was silent and reserved, and had fits of such strange abstraction, of preoccupation so intense and gloomy, that his wife shrank from addressing him. She would sit at her drawing-board with the pencil in her hand, and the colours drying on her palette, watching his rigid face as he sat by the hearth with an unread book open in his hand.

There were times when his silence would exercise so oppressive an influence upon her, that she was fain to steal quietly from the room, and remain away for hours; only to find him, perhaps, on her return, in the same attitude, with unchanged countenance, sitting brooding over a heap of black cinders.

He would apologise for these long reveries by saying he was tired, that he overworked himself, that the farm gave him a great deal of trouble, or that he was anxious about his Buckinghamshire property.

One morning, towards the end of January, he found a letter lying on the breakfast-table in the stiff handwriting of his bailiff. It was a much longer letter than usual, and Jenny saw by her husband’s face that its contents were not agreeable.

“Jenny, I shall have to go to Buckinghamshire,” said Dudley.

“To Buckinghamshire! Why?”

“Ralph’s letter tells me he is in a difficulty about the farm, and must have my advice before he stirs a step; I must go this very morning.”

Before she could answer him he had crumpled the letter in his hand, flung it into the fire, and left the room. She heard him ordering his horse to be brought round immediately. He came in hurriedly to wish her good-bye, promised to return to Lincolnshire in a day or two, and galloped off to catch the London express.

Reserved and silent as her husband was, Jenny felt unhappy in this his first absence. The servants, and the great rough farming-men about the place, were strange to her, — their very dialect almost unintelligible. She was lonely and uncomfortable among them, and she wandered in and out of the solitary rooms in which the great bare windows opened upon the chill winter sky, longing for Dudley’s return.

Two days and two nights, and the best part of the third day dragged themselves out, and he had not returned.

“He will come to-night,” she said; and she ordered huge fires to be piled in the grates, till the flames went roaring up the wide chimneys, and a red reflection shone in every panel of the dark wainscot.

It was a bitter evening; but at five o’clock, the hour at which a London train came in, she went out with a shawl thrown loosely over her head, and stood for a long time, looking anxiously down the dim pathway by the river bank. She did not return to the house until the Olney clocks chimed the three-quarters after five.

“He will be here by the nine-o’clock train,” she said; but seven, eight, nine, ten o’clock struck; the fire burned low, and her heart sank with a weary feeling of loneliness, for still he did not come.

The old housekeeper, and the parlour-maid who waited upon Mrs. Carleon, recommended her to go to bed, for ten o’clock was considered a late hour at the Grey Farm; but there was a mail-train that came into Olney at half-past one in the morning, and Jenny insisted on sitting up in case her husband should come by that. She sent the servants to bed after having made one of them instruct her in the mysteries of the bolts, bars, and chains of the hall-door; and, the fires having been once more replenished, she sat down in her low chair by the hearth to wear out the three hours which must elapse before her husband’s return.

She drew closer and closer to the blazing fire, she wrapped herself in a thick shawl, but in spite of all she shivered violently.

“I have caught Martin Carleon’s ague,” she said, “on the bank of that dismal river.”

The words seemed to strike a chill to her heart, for they brought back the scene of her wedding-day, and Agnes Marlow’s horrible accusation.

A portrait of the last owner of the farm hung in the shadow at the end of the room — a frank, genial face, with waving chestnut hair and bright blue eyes. The thought of the dead man haunted her in the dreary silence. She tried not to look at his picture; she turned her back to the panel where it hung. What if his likeness should descend from the shadowy panel, and, stealing noiselessly behind her, lay an impalpable hand upon her shoulder? She was not superstitious, but her monotonous life had weakened her nerves, and she felt as if she were alone with the dead. What if this painted image should shape itself into a phantom, and approach her? What if on rushing to the door to escape the phantom, she should find it locked, and herself a prisoner with this ghastly companion? What if those painted lips were to be miraculously unsealed, and an unearthly voice were to tell her that the words uttered by Agnes Marlow were an awful truth?

The cold perspiration broke out in great beads upon her forehead.

“I shall go mad,” she said, “if I am long alone.”

Once she rose from her seat, determined to call up one of the servants, but she had not the courage to traverse the dark hall and the back-staircase leading to their rooms — scarcely courage to pass the picture hanging between the fireplace and the door.

What, she thought, if she had indeed caught the ague or the fever that had killed her husband’s brother? What if she lay for weeks upon a weary bed, tended and watched by Dudley Carleon? Every syllable spoken by Agnes came back to her, and she seemed to see her husband, with a quiet step and a white, tremulous hand, jingling the thin glass of the medicine-bottles. The slow hands of the clock above the chimney-piece went silently round. She heard the distant chimes of Olney church, each several quarter seeming an hour to her impatience.

One — a quarter-past — half-past — three-quarters: two — a quarter-past two. The last white ashes dropped through the lowest bars of the grate. Three loud blows resounded upon the stout panel of the hall-door.

“O, thank Heaven, thank Heaven!” she said, springing from her seat; “how stupid have I been, and how I can afford to laugh at myself now that he has come!”

She caught up a candle from the table, flew into the hall, and began to unfasten the door, holding the candle still in one hand, and fumbling with the bolts, in her nervous but joyful agitation.

“Dudley,” she said, “Dudley, I won’t be long; be patient, I won’t be long.” But the heavy blows were repeated upon the door, and a gruff voice, muffled by the thick oak, uttered some impatient words.

A sudden terror seized her.

“Can he have been drinking?” she thought, “his voice sounds so thick and strange.”

“Dudley — now, now I have managed it.”

She turned the key with a great effort, and, letting down the chain, opened the door to its utmost width.

She felt for the first time in her life as if she really loved Dudley Carleon. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, to cling to him for protection and shelter.

A man in a slouched felt hat, a dark smock-frock, leathern gaiters, and great hob-nailed boots, strode across the threshold.

The lower part of his face was muffled in a coarse woollen handkerchief, but two sinister gray eyes looked out from under the shade of his hat.

Jenny did not remember having seen this man before, but the shock she experienced in meeting a stranger instead of her husband gave her an unwonted courage. She caught hold of a rope hanging near the doorway, a rope communicating with a great bell on the roof of the house, which was used to summon the men to their meals and to wake them in the morning. “Who are you?” she said, as the man flung down a knotted stick and a bundle in a red cotton handkerchief, and was about to pass her in the direction of the kitchen.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Muster Carleon’s bailiff, and maybe with as good a right to come into this house as Muster Carleon himself” said the man insolently.

“O, you are Purvis the bailiff, are you? Has your master sent you home?”

“Yes, I am Purvis; but my master ha’n’t sent me home. And pray, my pretty curly-haired Miss, who may you be?”

“Your master’s wife,” said Jenny haughtily.

The man stared at her rudely for two or three moments before he spoke.

“My master’s what?”

“His wife — Mrs. Carleon,” she said, looking him fall in the face, terrified, but not daunted, by his insolence.

The bailiff burst into a loud hoarse laugh. “Mr. Dudley Carleon’s wife! His right-down lawful wife! O, you’re that, are you? Give me the light,” he said, snatching the silver candlestick from her hand; “let’s have a look at you, then, for you’re a bit of a curiosity.”

Jenny’s hand had never left the rope; she pulled it violently, and the bell upon the roof clamoured and shook through the winter night.

Three or four half-dressed men came tumbling down the back staircase before the bell had ceased ringing.

“This man says he is my husband’s bailiff,” said Jenny, as they crowded round her; “take him to his room and look after him. He has insulted me; but as he is evidently tipsy, I shall ask no explanation until Mr. Carleon’s return. Send Sarah to my room, James,” she added to one of the farm-servants, whose face she knew; “I will not sleep in the house alone while that man is under this roof.”

“O, indeed, my lass; do you think I’d murder you?”

“I think you are a bad man,” said Jenny, looking back at the bailiff as she slowly ascended the broad staircase.

“I wouldn’t stay here at all, if you’re so timid, Miss,” said Ralph, with a sneering laugh; “there’s others besides me, perhaps, to be afraid of at the Grey Farm.”

 

Chapter 6
In The Dead Of The Night

Dudley Carleon came home early the next day, and found his wife confined to her room by a violent cold, while Ralph Purvis sat smoking his pipe over the kitchen-fire.

The young man was evidently unprepared for his bailiff’s arrival.

“What brought you down here?” he asked angrily.

“My business, and yours,” muttered Ralph, without taking his pipe from his mouth.

Dudley Carleon did not answer, but led the way into the dining-room, where he and Purvis were closeted together for nearly two hours.

In the course of this long interview the servants heard their master’s voice raised several times as if in anger, but the bailiff’s not once.

Mrs. Carleon came downstairs in the evening to her favourite seat by the fireplace in the oak-parlour. She had told her husband of Ralph’s conduct on his arrival; she had told him, indeed, that she could not live happily while the bailiff was in the house.

“My dear Jenny, the man is unfortunately so useful to me that I cannot afford to get rid of him,” said Dudley; “but I shall send him back to Buckinghamshire in a week, at the latest; in the mean time he must apologise to you.” He rang the bell, and the bailiff came in, turning his hat round in his two great hands; sleek, humble, and respectful; utterly different from what he had been at half-past two o’clock that morning.

He made an elaborate and rambling apology, with a cringing politeness of manner, but with a sulky face and an ominous glitter in his deep-set gray eyes. He seemed as if he had been tutored in what he was to say; or almost as if he had been repeating something learned from a book. But the ground of his excuse was, that he had been drinking on the previous night, and was a little off his head, as he called it.

Mrs. Carleon bowed gravely when he had finished.

“Then you will look over it, Jenny?” asked her husband.

“O, certainly,” she replied coldly, turning away her head, for she hated to feel the glittering eyes of the bailiff fixed upon her face.

“If Agnes had told me that man was a poisoner, I could almost have believed her,” she thought, as Ralph left the room.

Jenny’s cold lasted for some days, and at her husband’s request the surgeon from Olney rode over one morning to see her.

“A slight attack of influenza,” he said, “nothing more; Mrs. Carleon is a little debilitated; I will send her some strengthening medicine.”

“It is not ague, is it?” asked Jenny anxiously.

“Ague! O dear no, nothing of the kind.”

“Nor fever?”

“No; you are not in the least feverish.”

“Why, Jenny, what are you thinking of?” asked her husband.

“I was thinking of your brother Martin’s death, and wondering whether any of my symptoms resembled his.”

Dudley Carleon started half out of his chair, and looked earnestly at his wife’s face; then, sighing deeply, he said, as he reseated himself:

“Heaven forbid, Jenny! One such death as poor Martin’s is enough in a family.”

Mrs. Carleon was seated opposite to one of the windows; and looking up at this moment, she saw the dark face of the bailiff between herself and the winter sky.

He was standing on a short ladder, busy, pruning a creeping plant that grew over the house; and she saw that he had opened the window a couple of inches at the top, in order to extricate a branch that had been shut in.

“I wish you would send that man back to your other farm, Dudley,” she said; “he is always hanging about the house.”

The medicines did not come till rather late in the evening. In spite of herself, Jenny could not forget what Agnes Marlow had said, and she wondered whether her husband would offer to administer them to her.

He was seated at his desk, writing, when the maid-servant brought in the bottles; and he did not even look up as Jenny took them from their paper coverings.

“I am going to take my medicine, Dudley,” she said.

“That’s right, Jenny,” he answered, without raising his head.

She felt an intense relief at finding him so indifferent; she had never confessed to herself that she could possibly be brought to suspect him; but a load seemed lifted from her mind by this most simple circumstance.

The next day, and the next, she continued to take her medicines without the slightest notice from her husband. He was kind and attentive, asked often after her health, but said nothing about the medical treatment; he evidently attached very little importance to this slight attack of influenza.

On the third day the surgeon called again at the Grey Farm. He found Jenny in her old place by the fire, Dudley reading the newspaper opposite to her, and Ralph Purvis mending the lock of the door.

The bailiff was very handy as a smith, carpenter, or painter, and there always seemed something for him to do about the house now.

This time the surgeon looked grave, as he felt his patient’s pulse.

“You have not been taking my medicines, Mrs. Carleon,” he said.

“Yes, indeed, I have taken them very regularly; have I not, Dudley?”

“Why, to tell you the truth, I haven’t watched you closely enough to be able to vouch for your integrity, Jenny,” said her husband.

“Then there is more debility than I thought, Mrs. Carleon. We must try and set you up again, however.”

Jenny’s eyes wandered involuntarily to the portrait of Martin Carleon.

“Is there any fever?” she asked, looking up anxiously at the surgeon’s face, as he stood before her, with his fingers on her wrist.

“Why — yes, you are rather more feverish than you were a day or two ago,” he said with some hesitation.

Her face grew suddenly white; but she said nothing. When the surgeon had taken his departure, she rose from her chair, and seemed as if she was going to run out of the room. Ralph the bailiff, on his knees at the threshold of the half-open door, rattled away at the lock he was mending. Kneeling where he did, he seemed to present an impassable barrier between the mistress of the Grey Farm and the world without.

Dudley Carleon dropped the newspaper, as he started to his feet.

“Jenny! Jenny! what is the matter with you?”

“I want to get out of the house,” she said, looking about her wildly; “I want to run away. I know that if I stay here I shall die as he did!”

She pointed to Martin’s picture on the wall before her.

“Jenny!”

“O, forgive me! forgive me, Dudley!” she said, throwing herself into her husband’s arms, and sobbing hysterically: “I do not doubt you — I esteem, respect, and love you. I know how foolish I am, and hate myself for my folly; but I am frightened! — I am frightened!”

 

Chapter 7
Master And Slave

In spite of the doctor’s attention, in spite of her own care, Jenny Carleon did not regain her health. She felt herself gradually growing weaker; she felt that, by such slow degrees as were almost imperceptible, her strength was ebbing away from her. It was only by looking back at the end of a week, and remembering that seven days before she had been able to do this or that, which she was utterly powerless to do now, that she discovered how much she had changed. She struggled hard against this daily diminution of her strength, for she seemed to have an unreasonable horror of being confined to her room; but she succumbed at last, and kept her bed day after day. A good-tempered maid-servant waited upon her, and brought her medicines, which she poured out herself.

Her husband came into her room several times a day to ask after her health. He brought her piles of novels obtained for her from a circulating-library in the market-town; but he still appeared to make light of her illness, and was so much occupied about the farm that he could seldom stay with her for any length of time.

She used to ask every morning whether Ralph the bailiff was going away that day, always to be told that he was not, but that he would leave in a day or two at the latest. Once, after having received this answer, she turned her head round impatiently upon her pillow, and, with her face to the wall, burst into tears.

“Jenny, what is the matter with you?” asked her husband.

She did not answer; but he could see that her slight frame was shaken by her sobs.

“Jenny, I insist upon knowing the meaning of this.”

She lifted her head from the pillow, supported herself upon her elbow, and, putting her hair away from her tear-stained face, said to him solemnly, “Dudley Carleon, the presence of that man is killing me, day by day, and hour by hour. Shut up in this room, I cannot see him; but I can feel and know that an unseen influence is sapping my very life, and that influence is his. If you are not his slave, if you are not bound to him by some tie too fearful to be broken, send him from this house; or, if I have strength to crawl out of it, I will go myself.”

“Jenny, Jenny, this is an invalid’s fancy. Don’t give me reason to think you are as mad as Agnes Marlow.”

“Dudley Carleon, will you send that man away?”

“Since you are so silly, yes. He shall go to-night.”

She held out her wasted little hand to him with a smile.

“Do this, Dudley,” she said, “and I shall think that you love me.”

Something in the tone of her voice, in the sad but gentle expression of her face, touched his reserved and undemonstrative nature. Dudley Carleon clasped her suddenly to his breast, and hiding his face upon her shoulder sobbed aloud.

“O, my poor little wife,” he said, “what is to become of us — what is to become of us?”

“Dudley, Dudley, don’t cry. You terrify — you grieve me!”

He rose from his seat by the bedside, and brushed the tears from his eyes.

“I am a fool, Jenny; for I distress you and myself. But make your mind easy, Ralph shall go to-night. As there is a heaven above us, he shall go to-night!”

He turned out of the room as he finished speaking. It was now late in February; there had been continued wet weather for upwards of a week, and on this day the rain beat incessantly against the windows of Jenny’s room. The sky without was dull and leaden, and the wind whistled in the long corridor outside the door. Jenny found her novels very uninteresting. The volumes were too heavy for her to hold, and they dropped out of her weak hands and slid off the counterpane on to the floor. She lay, hour after hour, listening to every sound in the house — to the servants passing now and then across the hall below, to the occasional opening and shutting of a door, to the striking of the clocks, and to the barking of the sheep-dog in the back premises. The day was long and dreary, and the invalid welcomed the winter twilight and the maid-servant who brought her tea.

“Who makes my tea, Mary?” Jenny asked, as the girl arranged the things on a table by the bed.

“I do, ma’am.”

“And nobody ever touches it but yourself?”

“Nobody as I knows of, ma’am. I leave the teapot on the oven-top when I’ve mashed the tea, for it to draw. I’m sometimes out of the kitchen; but I don’t suppose anyone would touch it.”

“Is Ralph Purvis often in the kitchen?”

“Well, he is, ma’am, pretty well always about there. The weather’s too bad for him to be much about the farm now, and he’s very handy indoors.”

Half an hour afterwards, when the girl came to take the tray, she found the tea untouched; and her mistress told her to remove the tea-things, as she had no inclination either to eat or drink.

The ceaseless and monotonous rain seemed to Jenny as if it were bent on flooding the Grey Farm that evening. The cold wind crept under the door of her room till the stiff folds of the heavy damask bed-curtains rustled. The sashes of the windows rattled every now and then, as if an angry hand had been beating at them from without.

The shaded lamp by the bedside left the corners of the room in obscurity, and Jenny’s disordered fancy conjured up the glittering eyes of the bailiff leering at her out of the shadow.

“O, this dreary, dismal place!” she said, over and over again. “Why does Dudley leave me here to die alone?”

She could see her face in an oval mirror hanging upon the wall opposite to her bed. The dim reflection in the depths of this glass showed her a wan, pale, wasted face, and hollow, fever-bright eyes. It seemed strange to her; and she shuddered to know it was her own.

“I shall look like that in my coffin,” she said, “except that my eyes will be closed.”

Eleven o’clock struck before her husband came to his room. He had slept in an adjoining apartment during Jenny’s illness.

She had in the course of the evening fallen several times into a feverish slumber, and could hardly help fancying she had slept for hours, and that the night must be far advanced. As the clock struck eleven, she fell asleep once more; but her rest was broken by troubled dreams.

She dreamt that she was out upon the river-bank, with the rain falling upon her uncovered head, and drenching her thin nightdress. She was watching for Dudley, as she had watched for him upon the night of the bailiff’s return. Suddenly she found that she had a child in her arms — a miserable, puny baby, that clung to her convulsively, and twisted its tiny hands in the lace about her throat, as if it were trying to strangle her. She strove to release herself, but it hung about her with a heavy leaden weight that almost dragged her to the ground.

The rain beating in her face blinded her; her naked feet slipped upon the river-bank; the low wail of the child rose to a shrill scream of terror, and she awoke, with the cold perspiration streaming down her forehead, to hear the Olney clock chime the quarter, and to hear, in the direction of the servants’ rooms, the same pitiful wail she had heard from the child in her dream.

What did it mean? There were no children at the Grey Farm; and there never had been since her marriage.

The house was said to be haunted. She had heard of more than one ghost-story attached to the dismal pile of building; but she had laughed at them as absurd. What if one of them were true?

A strange, mad desire to encounter the supernatural terror — if terror there were — took possession of her. She crept out of her bed, wrapped herself in a shawl, and stole into the corridor. She was so weak that she could scarcely stand, but she supported herself by clinging to the wall, and contrived to reach the landing of the principal staircase, on the other side of which was a door communicating with the servants’ rooms.

This door was ajar, and she could hear that the child’s cries proceeded from the other side.

She passed into the servants’ corridor, and traced the sound to the little sitting-room that had once been occupied by Ralph and his sister. A light shone through the crevice under the door of this room, and through a keyhole which had been roughly cut in the wood.

There had never been a lock to the door, which was only fastened by a latch and an iron bolt.

She could hear the low pitiful wail of the child, and the voice of a woman trying to hush it to sleep. She fell on her knees at the top of the little flight of steps leading to the door, and looked through the keyhole into the room. Her husband was seated writing, at a small table, by the light of one candle. Behind his chair, and looking over him as he wrote, stood Ralph Purvis the bailiff. A woman dressed in a black gown and a thick gray shawl sat by the little fireplace with a child in her arms — a pale-faced, puny baby, that kept up an incessant wail. The woman had taken off her bonnet, and had fastened it by the strings to the back of her chair.

Jenny knew this woman, by her likeness to the bailiff, to be his sister Martha, Dudley’s old housekeeper.

Neither of the three uttered a word, and the silence was only broken by the scratching of Dudley’s pen over the paper, and the smothered crying of the child, muffled in the woman’s shawl. When Dudley’s pen had reached the bottom of the page he stopped, glanced over what he had written, and then signed his name.

“Now, your signature as witness,” he said, handing the pen to Ralph.

“I sha’n’t sign!” answered the bailiff.

“Why not?”

“Because, I tell you again, it won’t do.”

“Have you read it?”

“Yes. You settle this place on your lawful son and heir, Dudley Carleon junior, crying there in the lap of his mother, your lawful wife, Martha Carleon. You settle this property on my sister’s child, provided we renounce all claim upon you and keep your secret, and you go off to Australia with that curly-haired Miss who calls herself your wife! I tell you it won’t do. It’s not enough. I want the farm: but I want money to improve the farm — I want that six thousand pounds; and I’ll have that, or nothing.”

“Six thousand pounds!” Jenny mechanically repeated the words with a shudder. It was her fortune, no doubt, that this man wanted. Her fortune, which, should she die childless, would go to Dudley Carleon; such had been the condition in the marriage-settlement to which she had consented.

The woman sitting over the fire never once looked up during this brief dialogue. Dudley buried his face in his hands, with a loud groan, and let his head fall upon the writing before him.

Ralph Purvis struck his clenched fist upon the table, and said, “Look ye here, Muster Carleon. Go back a bit; go back to four, or nigh upon five years ago, when you was a stripling just come home from college, and Muster Martin was alive, and well and strong, and promising to make older bones than you, any day. Do you remember moping about the place; looking miserable; or making believe to be happy, and looking more miserable still for making believe? Do you remember one afternoon, when they was making hay in one of the river-side meadows, and you was lying upon the ground pretending to read your book — do you remember my coming up behind you sudden, and hearing you groan? I asks you what’s the matter, and what it is that’s on your mind; and after a deal of talk, you tells me it’s college debts; debts as you dare not mention to Muster Martin, because he’s been so kind to you already; and you’re afraid of an exposure, and of being expelled, perhaps, and all sorts of things; and you’re very proud, you say, and you’ll cut your throat sooner than you’ll live to be disgraced. I told you I was very sorry for you, and said that if you’d only been the eldest son instead of the youngest, things would have been easy enough, for then you could have raised the money upon a mortgage. We spoke about it again the next day, and the next, and the next after that, till we came, somehow, to be always talking of it, and we grew quite friendly — a’most like equals.”

“Curse you!” groaned Dudley, with his face still hidden.

“At the end of a month, Muster Carleon, I was awoke one moonlight night by you standing by my bedside. If I’d ever believed in ghosts, I should have thought you was one. If a ghost’s horrid to look at, it can’t be more horrid to look at than you was that night. You had a slip of paper in your hand, with something wrote upon it — wrote small and backwards, and not like your own handwriting. ‘Ralph,’ you said, ‘you’re going to the market-town to-morrow; get me some of the stuff that’s written down here, at a chemist’s, and don’t tell anybody who you’re getting it for!’ That was every word as passed between us. I got the stuff the next day; but I told the chemist’s lad to give me double the quantity that was written on the paper, and to give it me in two packets, labelled alike and sealed alike, and to sign his name and write the date upon one of ’em. The shop was crowded, being market-day, and the master of it took no notice of me, or what I was buying. I kept the packet that was signed and dated, and I gave you the other. This was early in August. Muster Carleon died on the 24th of September. Well; things went smooth enough for a time; you got out of your debts by means of a mortgage, which was kept pretty dark until the farm improved under my care, and you paid it off. Now, all this time I hadn’t asked you a favour, not so much as for a sixpence over my wages; but it isn’t strange that I expected to gain something by having served you faithful.”

“Served me! Yes, as the devil serves his bonded slaves.”

“I served you faithful, anyhow: and I said to you at last, Come, Muster Carleon, you’re beholden to me for many things, but most of all you’re beholden to me for having kept a still tongue. Marry my sister, and make her mistress of the Grey Farm.’ You laughed in my face, and refused me what I asked. I could afford to bide my time. Three years after your brother’s death I had an explanation with you in this very room. You knocked me down and split my head open; but you came to terms, and, a month after, you married my sister by bans at the Borough Church, London. You were ashamed of your wife, and you were ashamed of what you had done. So you buried her down in a country village, and as soon as you set eyes upon that fine curly-haired Miss of yours, you packed me off to keep company with my sister. But I wasn’t quite such a fool as you took me for, Muster Carleon. I had my spies in Olney, and I heard all about you from them. I heard of your marriage, and I heard of your wife’s fortune; but I determined to bide my time, and to make things work round to my own advantage. I waited three or four months after your marriage, and then, having sent for you to throw you off your guard, I stole a march upon you, and came down here to look about me. I found poor Miss slightly ailing. Since then she’s got worse; and yesterday I wrote to my sister, telling her to come down here, as I thought it likely she might have her rights before long.”

Dudley Carleon lifted his ghastly face from his hands, staggered out of his chair, and fell on his knees at the bailiff’s feet.

“Look at me,” he said in a thick choking voice; “look at me; I am so degraded and lost a wretch that I kneel to you, and ask you to pity me! No, not to pity me, to pity her — the helpless woman I have deceived. Save her, and I will surrender this place, and every farthing I have in the world. Save her, and I will go out of this house, penniless and shelterless, to beg my bread or to die of starvation. Save her, and there is nothing I am not prepared to endure.”

“Will you endure the gallows?” asked Ralph with a sneer. Dudley groaned aloud, but did not answer.

“No, I thought not,” said the bailiff. “Now, listen to me. Let me alone, and I’ll keep your secret to the day of my death. Interfere with me, or try to thwart my plans, or pry into my business, and I’ll let people know what you are, and how you poisoned your brother Martin.”

Jenny Carleon, crouching at the threshold of the door, had heard every word spoken by Ralph Parvis. But at this hideous climax her senses left her, and she fell down the steps leading from the corridor.

 

Chapter 8
The Last Chance

When Jenny recovered her senses, she found herself lying in her own room, with a bandage round her forehead. It was broad daylight, and her husband was seated at the bedside.

She put her hand to her head, looked round helplessly, and asked, “What have I been doing?”

“We found you in the corridor leading to the servants’ rooms. What, in Heaven’s name, had taken you there, Jenny?”

The scene of the night before flashed upon her. She felt that her only chance of escape was to affect ignorance of what she had discovered.

“I thought I heard a child cry, and I went to ascertain; but I was so weak that I could scarcely reach the stairs. I suppose I fainted in trying to do so.”

Her husband looked at her with a searching glance, and then said, “Foolish girl, the child you heard was Martha’s. My old housekeeper has been married a year and a half, and she has come down here to see if her brother can get her a place. Try and go to sleep, Jenny; you did yourself harm by getting up last night.”

She listened to the sound of her husband’s receding footsteps as he left the room. She heard him go along the corridor, down the stairs, across the hall, and into the back premises. As the doors closed behind him, she crept from her bed, and began hurriedly to dress herself in the warmest garments she could find. She was dizzy from the cut on her forehead, and so weak that she was compelled to support herself by holding on to the furniture as she dressed.

“O God, grant me strength to crawl from this horrible place,” she said, “or I shall never leave it till I am carried out in my coffin.”

She put on her bonnet, and muffled herself in a great woollen shawl, then crept along the corridor, and slowly descended the stairs. To her unspeakable relief she found the hall deserted. She stole out of the front door and closed it behind her. The cold winter air blew upon her face and revived her. She looked up at the long rows of windows and the dreary stone-frontage of the house, as some wretched criminal might look back at a prison from which he had just escaped.

She had tied a thick veil over her plain straw bonnet. “If any of the men are about they will take me for one of the servants,” she thought.

She hurried across the garden, through the gate, and on to the river-bank, without meeting anyone in her way. The tide was high, the river swollen by the rains, the meadows by the bank half-hidden by the standing water. She seemed to have a superhuman strength as she walked rapidly along the narrow pathway.

“Thank Heaven!” she said. “If I can but reach the highroad I may get a lift in some market-cart going into Olney.”

But when she came to the first gate she stopped suddenly. On the other side of it two men were hard at work with spades and pickaxes. They had just finished cutting a drain straight across the bank — a channel through which the water off the meadows was pouring down into the river.

This open drain presented an impassable barrier between the Grey Farm and the outer world. To reach the high-road by any other way Jenny must traverse half-a-dozen fields, and walk a distance of two miles.

Her heart seemed to stop beating.

“I must stay here to be murdered,” she said; “for escape is impossible.”

But what if she were to appeal to one of the men? Wide as the drain was, they might lift her over it if they pleased. She crawled on until she came up to the spot where they were at work. One of them had his back towards her as she approached, but at the sound of her footsteps he turned round. That man was Ralph the bailiff.

The fact of his presence revealed to her the terrible truth. This barrier between herself and Olney was a part of the hideous plot, the end of which was her death.

“I want to go into Olney,” she said resolutely; “put a board over that drain, that I may cross it.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” answered Ralph indifferently, “that it can’t be done. First and foremost, there isn’t a board to be had; and as to going into Olney, I’m afraid you’re acting against the doctor’s orders in coming out at all, ma’am — and I’m sure Muster Carleon would break his heart to see you run the risk of catching cold. Here he comes, though, so he can settle the question himself.”

Her husband rode up to them as the man spoke.

“Jenny!” he said. “You out of doors this bitter morning! Are you mad? For Heaven’s sake come back to the house!”

“Dudley Carleon,” Jenny said, looking her husband full in the face, “I want to escape from this place. I want to go into Olney.”

“My dear girl, you are not in a fit state to be out at all. Why, you can scarcely stand! — Lift your mistress up to me, Ralph,” he said.

The bailiff lifted Jenny in his arms, and her husband seated her before him upon his horse.

“Why, Jenny, you tremble like a leaf; you will catch your death!”

She looked round at him with grave sorrowful eyes.

“O, Dudley, Dudley, when I came to this place, I came to meet my death. I was warned, but I would not listen.” Ralph the bailiff looked significantly at his master.

“This work must be finished to-night,” he said, taking up his spade. “If you want to go into Olney to-morrow, ma’am,” he added, “you can go and welcome. We shall have laid down the pipes and filled in this dyke before ten o’clock to-night.”

Dudley rode slowly back to the house and carried his wife into the hall. He was about to take her upstairs, but she stopped him.

“Let me lie on the sofa in the parlour,” she said. “I hate those dreary upstairs rooms.”

He took her into the parlour, drew the sofa close to the fire, covered her with a thick railway-rug, and left her. She lay, hour after hour, repeating to herself again and again, “What am I to do?”

Should she appeal to the servants for protection from Ralph Purvis and his accomplice — her guilty husband? They would not believe her. Very likely Ralph had taught them to think her mad — had prepared them to set down every word she could say to the raving of a disordered mind. They would no doubt refuse to credit her accusations, as she had refused to credit those of Agnes Marlow. In that case they might betray her, and she would be only hastening her doom.

All communication between Olney and the farm had been purposely cut off. The doctor could not pay his accustomed visit. She was utterly friendless and alone. She knew that she had been taking slow poison for weeks — that her murderer was lying in wait to give her the final dose, and, that failing, that he would not scruple to have recourse to more violent means. He might force the deadly draught down her throat. How could she resist? A strong hand over her mouth, and her cries would be stifled until they grew still in death. They would bury her, as they had buried Martin Carleon, without a shadow of suspicion arising in the mind of the doctor, and no one outside that lonely house would ever know the truth. To-day the hours were but too swift. This day flew by with terrible rapidity. It grew dark; the hour approached at which the men were accustomed to go to bed. This was the hour she dreaded above all others, for she felt she would then be left alone with Dudley Carleon and his bailiff.

She watched the clock intently, listening as she did so for the first clang of the bell which rang at the servants’ bedtime. It rang every night with unvarying punctuality as the clock struck nine. It was five-and-twenty minutes past eight. There were five-and-thirty minutes left, and during those five-and-thirty minutes she must think of some means of escape. Five-and-thirty minutes! She counted the seconds by the tumultuous beating of her heart. The hand of the clock had just reached the half-hour, when, to her horror, the bell rang violently. She started up from her sofa. She heard a hurried trampling of feet in the hall, and the men rushing out at the front door. Ralph Purvis was shouting to them to be quick — to look alive — look alive! or they would be too late.

What could it mean? She ran to one of the windows, drew up the blind, and looked out. A hayrick in a field at some distance had taken fire. It was one of several standing near together, and the men were hurrying to extinguish it, so as to save the others.

Her brain reeled, as the thought flashed upon her that this unlooked-for accident had taken Ralph from the house. She was free — free to attempt once more to escape. But how?

The hall-door had been left open by the men hurrying out. A sudden inspiration made the hot blood rush from her heart into her face. The river! There was the river — the river, which crept close behind the house, and down which the barges were often passing to Olney. Too desperate to remember her weakness, she stole round to the back premises, across the farmyard, and on to the bank. It was pitch dark. She looked about her wildly. A dozen barges might pass me,” she thought, “and I should not see one of them.”

She could hear the voices of the men trying to extinguish the hayrick in the field in front of the house. She waited about ten minutes — ten interminable minutes — and at the end of that time she saw a feeble light creeping along the river. As it approached her, she perceived that it came from a lantern tied to the mast of a coal-barge.

She called to the men on board this barge. Her voice was feeble from the effects of her long illness, but her repeated cries at last attracted their attention. “What’s the matter there?” asked the man who was steering the barge.

At that moment the flames of the burning hayrick, which had before been hidden by the house, shot above the roof, and cast a lurid glare upon the river bank.

“Why, the house must be on fire?” the man said to his comrade. “Get ashore, Bill, and see what’s amiss.”

One of the men jumped into a boat at the stern of the barge, and pushed it to the bank on which Jenny was standing.

“What’s the matter?” he asked; “is the house a-fire?”

“No, no, take me to Olney,” she cried imploringly. “I’ll give you ten pounds if you’ll take me to Olney.”

The man thought she was one of the servants belonging to the house.

“Why, what is it, lass?” he said; “has your master been ill-using you?”

“Yes,” she answered eagerly, “take me to Olney, for pity’s sake!”

“All right, my lass; give us your hand, then.”

The man lifted her into the boat, and from the boat into the barge; his companion wrapped her in a great-coat, and seated her against the chimney of the little cabin.

“It’s warm there, my lass,”, he said; “we shall be nigh upon an hour getting into Olney.”

She never took her eyes from the red light in the sky, which revealed the sharp outline of the roof-tops and chimneys of the Grey Farm, till a curve of the river hid the gaunt building from her view. Then she lifted her voice to heaven, and thanked God for her deliverance from peril and death.

One of the men from the barge carried her to the Rectory, and placed her in Mr. Marlow’s arms.

The worthy Rector was bewildered and amazed by her appearance; but she only told him that her husband had treated her unkindly, and that she had come to throw herself upon her old guardian for shelter and protection.

The terrors of the awful night and day through which she had passed had been too much for a constitution undermined as hers had been. She had an attack of brain-fever, in which she lay for weeks upon a sick bed; in her delirium perpetually reacting the scenes through which she had passed. Agnes Marlow came from Scarborough on hearing of her friend’s illness, and nursed her with a sister’s devotion.

As soon as Jenny was strong enough to be moved, they carried her to Burlington for change of air.

They had never asked her any questions about her husband’s conduct to her, and she had made no inquiries as to what had taken place during her illness. She felt a strange serenity of mind in the society of these dear and devoted friends, and she had scarcely sufficient courage to allude to the past. She had noticed, however, that on the first occasion of her rising from her bed, Agnes, and the servant who helped to nurse her, had dressed her in mourning, and that they still continued to bring her this black dress every day. It was simply made, but trimmed with a deep border of crape. On the third day after her arrival at Burlington, as she sat alone with Agnes, she said very quietly, “Agnes, why am I in mourning? Who is dead?”

“Can you bear to hear, Jenny? Are you strong enough to hear something that may perhaps shock you?”

“Yes, tell me the worst. Who is dead?”

“Dudley Carleon.”

Jenny’s cheeks grew white, but she did not utter one exclamation of either surprise or sorrow. “May a merciful God forgive him his sins!” she said solemnly.

It was not until she had quite recovered that she was told the entire truth — Dudley Carleon had drowned himself in the river behind his house on the night of Jenny’s escape; and Ralph Purvis the bailiff had proved a will of Dudley’s which left the Grey Farm estate to himself and his sister conjointly.

As soon as Ralph and Martha were placed in possession of the estate, they sold the Grey Farm and all appertaining to it, and the brother and sister, with Dudley’s infant son, sailed for Australia.

To none but these two people and Jenny Trevor was the real cause of Dudley’s suicide ever known. It was supposed by most people to have been caused by financial difficulties, and that the burning of several valuable hayricks had gone some way to drive the young farmer to this terrible deed. It was some time afterwards discovered that the ricks had been fired by a young man who had been dismissed from the farm a few days before, under circumstances of peculiar cruelty, by Ralph Purvis.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Far away in the Bush there is a rich sheep-farm, stretching over many miles of fair and luxuriant country. The master counts his cattle by hundreds, and bids fair to become a wealthy and a respected citizen of that distant world. Grim, sleek, dark, and silent, he stalks about amongst his farm-servants, always near them when they least expect to see him — always watching them when they fancy themselves most unobserved.

Dark and silent as himself, his sister, dressed in widow’s weeds, sits nursing her sickly child at the door of their roughly-built, but comfortable, dwelling. They are neither of them liked by their dependents; but they are feared, and are better served than a better master and mistress might be.

Jenny Trevor has kept Dudley Carleon’s secret, and has lived to marry happily, but not to forget either her terrible sufferings, or her merciful deliverance out of the murderous hands of Ralph the bailiff.

 

Captain Thomas

I hold it as a rule, that nine men out of ten are unfortunate in their first attachments; and I hold it as another rule, that it’s a very good thing for them that they are. If fortune had smiled upon my first wooing, I should have united myself to a young lady of thirty-five, assistant at a pastrycook’s in the neighbourhood of the academy where I was educated, with whom I became enamoured at the age of nine and three-quarters. Naturally, the lady repulsed my advances on account of my tender years; though I had two Latin Grammars; a book of French Exercises; a penknife; Telemachus, with the verbs in Italics; and a new pair of boots; with which I offered to endow her upon my marriage. I wept when she refused me; whereupon, out of the tenderness of her heart, she gave me a stale Bath bun, which had the effect of choking rather than of consoling me. I believe she was a fat woman with red hair; but I saw her then with the glamour of first love about her, and I thought she was a happy combination of Mary Queen of Scots (I was familiar with that ill-used potentate through an itinerant exhibition of waxwork) and a young lady I had seen at Richardson’s, dancing the Highland Fling.

So I, being one of the nine men out of the ten above alluded to, was unlucky in my first attachment.

I can’t say that I was any more fortunate in my second, which flame was illumined by the bright eyes of a cousin three years older than myself, who boxed my ears on my declaring myself in the back-parlour on a wet Sunday. I knew to what cause to attribute this repulse: I was not yet out of jackets, and I glanced behind me in the direction where my coat-tails ought to have been, and felt that my enemy was there.

My third passion was equally luckless; my fourth no more successful; and I really think I had had the honour of having my hand in marriage refused seventeen times, counting from the pastrycook, when my happy stars (I said happy stars then, I know now that the hand of a malignant genius was in the business) threw me across the path of Rosa Matilda. I met her at a tea-party at Somers Town, whither my sisters had taken me in a cab — for which I had to pay — tight boots, and a white waistcoat. Now, I have always considered that the end and aim of that snare and delusion which is popularly called a friendly cup of tea is to sit in an uncomfortable position in an uncomfortable chair; drink hot weak tea, which afflicts you with temporary dropsy; eat spongy preparations of the genus Lunn or Muffin, admirally adapted to impair your digestive organs; and utter articulate inanities. I am not a brilliant man, I believe, at the very best of times. I never remember throwing an assembly into convulsions of laughter with my wit, or electrifying it with my eloquence. I may have done so often, but my modesty has prevented my being conscious of the fact. But O, let me be so luckless as to be invited to join “a few friends” to tea between seven and eight, and the veriest phantasm of a “phantasm captain” is a Chamier, Marryat, or Basil Hall, in powers of amusing conversation, compared to me. O, how I hate the simpering hostess in her best gown! But I know that she is fidgety about that eighteenpenn’orth of cream, that won’t go all round with the third cup, and that her heart sinketh at the sight of a three-cornered bit of muffin dropped, greasiest side downwards, on the new Brussels; yes, I know she is wretched, and I could almost pity her. But O, my hatred for the “few friends”! I hope that young man from the War-office has tight boots on too; there is a look about the corners of his mouth that can come from nothing but corns. Yes; I am neither physiognomist nor physiologist if that nervous twitch of the facial muscles doesn’t denote the presence of corns, and the patent leather is drawing them. He and I, in all that heartless throng, are friends and brothers.

But for the rest — who seem to have not a care on earth; whose proper element seems hot weak tea with too much sugar in it; and to whom semi-baked batter in a spongy condition appears to be wholesome and invigorating food — for them my hatred is unsoftened by any touch of sympathy. We are foes — foes to the death, or rather to the door-mat; for once out of the abominable Castle of Despair — when once their cabs have driven them off to the “Supreme Silences,” and mine has driven me to my lodgings — I think of them no more.

I digress. Revenons à nos moutons: that is to say, Rosa Matilda. I met her at a tea-party. O, that so lovely an Aphrodite could rise out of the mud-ocean of “a few friends”! I think I was more than usually brilliant that evening. I asked her if she’d seen Millais’s “Yale of Rest,” and if she didn’t think the nuns were ugly. I knew I was safe in saying this; I’d heard the remark made so often. I asked her if she liked muffins, and if she didn’t consider them indigestible; and if she didn’t think they were always administered to people at a tea-party to incapacitate them for eating any supper. She said I was a quiz, she was sure. I was glad she was sure, because I was myself by no means so convinced of the fact. I asked her if she’d read the Tale of Two Cities, and if she didn’t think it more affecting than Pickwick. I asked her which she liked best, Frederick the Second, or the Virginians, and which of the heroines of the Idyls she thought would have made the best housekeeper for a young man who married on two hundred a-year. Enid, no doubt, because she didn’t mind wearing faded silk. She told me she thought Geraint a perfect brute of a husband, and that Lancelot was the only man in the book worth anything; and that Guinevere was very silly in throwing away the diamonds, even if she threw off the lover. She thought Elaine a very forward young person, who couldn’t leave off running after the men, even when she was dead. This, and much more, she said, which I to hear, of course, did seriously incline; in fact, so seriously, that I ran some risk of sliding off my hostess’s slippery embroidered chair in bending over the scented tresses of the lovely being who was seated on a low prie-dieu by my side. Rapturous moments! I remarked on the opposite side of the room the female parent of my charmer, who from time to time cast uneasy glances in the direction of her daughter and myself. Presently she addressed some few whispered words to our hostess, and either my eyes deceived me, or that lady’s lips shaped the syllables, “five hundred a-year, and expectations from an uncle.” At any rate, the effect of the communication was pleasing, and the mamma of my loveliest smiled upon her child. After tea this divine being sang, and I turned over the leaves of her music — delightful task! I believe I always turned them over in the wrong place. Who could keep his eyes upon inanimate crotchets and quavers while she was singing? In short, my time was come! I beheld my first love, all but seventeen. The evening was a dream; she sang — I didn’t know what she sang; she played — it may have been a sonata by Sebastian Bach, or it might be variations on a Christy-Minstrel melody; but it was to me the music of the spheres, and would have been had it been the merest domestic request to “Polly” to make the ordinary preparations for the evening meal. I took her in to supper. I sat next her at supper, and we were crowded. I procured her chicken, and I carved a tongue for her. I sent a lot of particoloured jujubes, which adorned that comestible, into her lap in my enthusiasm; but Amare et sapere — the proverb is somewhat musty, — but nobody ever did, you know.

O, the nectar that those dismal liquids, the two-shilling Cape and the two-and-sixpenny Marsala, to say nothing of the African sherry, became, when you quaffed them by her side! I introduced her to my sisters. They said afterwards in the cab, going home, that she was an affected thing, and that her crinoline set vilely. What did I care for her crinoline? And if that silk, as they said, had been evidently turned from the top to the bottom, what did I care? My Enid was lovelier than all the world; and as to her faded silk — why, I’d buy her a new one — or she should have it dyed — and so and so. Mamma — her mamma — she wore a front; but she was her mamma; and it was a mighty effort, but I always looked as if I believed in it — her mamma asked me to call; and I said I knew most of the managers of the West-end theatres (I hope those gentlemen will forgive me; and I believe they will, for they most have been in love themselves at some remote period of their existences), and that I could get “orders,” and might I bring them to the Pocklintons? [Pocklinton was my Rosa Matilda’s surname. Feu Pocklinton (Mrs. P. was a widow) had been in the Post-office — I never asked what; he might have been a “twopenny,” or a “general,” for aught I cared.] I might bring the orders. I did. I got them from my old friend Scrauncher, who does the theatricals for the Daily Scarifier; and I treated him to uncountable “bitters” at the hostelry where he broke covert. So Rosa Matilda, Mrs. P., and myself went in a cab; I with my back to the horses, of course; but cabs are narrow, and she was opposite; I didn’t think the fare from Mornington-place to the Olympic too much.

O, my Rosa, “hollow-hearted”! where, where are the half-crowns I used to spend on those dear deluding hansoms, that were always beckoning to me in the Strand, and that would draw me up to the Hampstead-road, in spite of myself?

Well, my eighteenth venture seemed to be a fortunate one; Rosa Matilda and I were engaged. Yes; I had said one day in the drawing-room (mamma had a call to make, and would I excuse her?), — we were alone, — I had said that “the happiness — future life — depended — one word — render — happy or miserable.” And Rosa Matilda had said, “Lor, Mr. Strothers!” (I forgot to mention, by-the-bye, that my name is Strothers — Christian name, Benjamin — and that has told against me on some occasions)— “Lor, Mr. Strothers, what can I say to make you happy or miserable?”

“What can you say — ?” and then, and then — there followed the old, old, pitiful, hackneyed, worn-out, new and original, eminently-successful farce! — the blushes, the smiles, the tears, the little trembling hand, the surprise, and all the shabby old properties thereunto belonging; and I found myself accepted. Seventeen performances had, perhaps, taken a little of the freshness out of the said cosmopolitan farce. Seventeen wakings from the same dream made it, perhaps, rather hard to forget that the dream was a dream.

Perhaps there was an arrière pensée even in that gush of rapture, and I may have thought that I was only playing at being happy after all. But, carpe diem, and here is Mrs. Pocklinton come home; and “Well, she never! — and of all the surprising things — and Rosey, naughty girl, to be so sly — and how strange that she should never have had the least idea!” And I have not the slightest doubt that this woman and her daughter had talked over me and my prospects, and the advantages of a marriage with me, and the conflicting advantages of that offer of Brown’s, and that possible offer of Jones’s, with the strong probability that before long Robinson himself might “pop,” these hundred times by their bedroom fires during our brief acquaintance. But better, as the poet says, “to have loved and lost” — better to be the weakest of fools than to lose the capability of being made a fool of — better the maddest dream earth can give than that sober waking which tells us we can dream no more. So I was, upon the whole, glad that Rosa Matilda accepted me; and I bought her a diamond ring at Hancock and Burbrook’s that afternoon, and I put it upon her finger after tea.

So we were engaged. Time passed. I had taken a house and furnished it, guided by my future mother-in-law. The day was fixed for our marriage. It was to take place in December. We were now in November; yes, we were in that dreary and suicidal month, when I for the first time heard his name — the name of my unknown and mysterious rival — the name of the being on whom, for some months of my life, I poured the inarticulate anathema, the concentrated hate, of a hitherto-peaceful mind. It was in this wise: we had been to the theatre; we had seen a farce, — I forget the title, but I know Mr. Buckstone had his coat split up the back, and that everybody took everybody for somebody else; so, as I daresay these incidents only occur in one piece, my readers will recognise the dramatic production of which I have forgotten the name; — we had been to the theatre, and I had returned to the Pocklintons’ to supper. We had scalloped oysters; I was helped twice: the bottled ale was peculiarly delicious. Life seemed that night one bright and golden dream. I little knew the Damoclesian sword which was at that very moment dangling from the whitewashed medallion in the centre of the ceiling. I little knew that the Thunderer had his bolt in his hand, and was only waiting the most convenient moment for launching that instrument at the devoted head of Benjamin Strothers, of the Inner Temple. I had my fork midway between my plate and my mouth; the moderator-lamp was burning brightly; that nightmare of a young woman in a rustic dress was asking that eternal “Momentous Question” of that Frankenstein of a young man in chains, on the wall opposite me; the fire was fierce and glowing, — a cinder fell out into the fender; I remember (so, in the great epochs of our lives, do the most trivial things impress us!) I wondered whether the housemaid would use that cinder in the morning to light the fire, or whether she would throw it on the ash-heap in the back-garden, when Mrs. Pocklinton remarked, “You are fond of fish, Mr. Strothers?” I thought this was a hit at me for having been helped twice; if it was, it was mean: for were not those very oysters part of a barrel of Colchesters of my own presenting?— “You are fond of fish? Ah, Rosey, wasn’t Captain Thomas fond of fish?”

The sword had dropped — the bolt was launched; the Thunderer put his hands in his pockets, and I daresay resumed that little skirmish with the Ox-eyed about his predilection for late hours and fancy dress. The blow was struck! Captain Thomas!

The reader will naturally observe, “Well, what then? What then? There is nothing in the mere mention of the name of Captain Thomas; there is nothing even in Captain Thomas being fond of fish.” But I think there is a great deal in Rosa Matilda’s starting from her seat at the mention of that name, putting her handkerchief to her eyes, and darting hurriedly from the room.

“Sensitive child!” said Mrs. Pocklinton. “It is very odd; but we actually daren’t mention his name before her. It was a most extraordinary infatuation!”

Extraordinary infatuation! Now this was pleasant for me, wasn’t it?

“And pray, madam,” I said, not without some degree of severity, “may I be allowed!” (I laid a sarcastic stress upon “allowed”) “to inquire who” (another sarcastic stress upon “who,” and then I was done up in the way of breath) “Captain Thomas may be?”

“O,” said Mrs. P., “the dearest creature! He was—” And she didn’t say what he was, for at this very moment reënter Rosa Matilda with red eyes.

“Forgive me, dear Benjamin, for being so silly,” she murmured; “I know it’s very, very weak and childish; but he loved me so, poor dear — and I — I—” (symptoms of more tears)— “I’d had him so long.”

She’d had him so long! He couldn’t have been — No; that was too horrible! And, besides, he was a captain — a warrior — a man of mature years — an accepted lover, of course — my predecessor in the affections of this false girl and Mrs. P.’s scalloped oysters.

Well, what was to be done? Discard Rosa Matilda, and get the upholsterer to take back the furniture at a reduction, like that dear, volatile hero of M. de Kock’s romance, Ce Monsieur, who was always furnishing apartments, and always selling his movables and garnitures? No; prudence whispered that I should lose by the transaction; and I loved Rosa Matilda. This Captain Thomas, this military or naval commander, as the case might be, was a being of the past. I, I was the conqueror; and I registered an inward vow, that once married to Rosa Matilda, it should be my care to provide her with more substantial causes for red eyes than phantasm Captain Thomases.

So I let it pass; and I had hot brandy-and-water after supper, and Rosa Matilda had spoonfuls out of my glass, and she burnt my hand with the bowl of the spoon in fascinating playfulness, and we behaved with the infantine simplicity of a pair of turtle-doves, to whom sorrow and sighing and Captain Thomases were unknown.

The first time, I have said before, it was in this wise; the second time it was in another wise.

Our house was furnished, and we went one afternoon to look at it. The Brussels was down in the dining-room, the tapestry in the drawing-room. It was Mrs. P.’s taste. I don’t believe in sky-blue roses on a primrose ground; but I daresay she did, and she would have the carpet. The Kidderminsters upstairs were the most innocent, gushing, simple-minded patterns you ever saw; verdant as meadows in spring, and an admirable fond for the white curtains, and the white-and-gold china, and the maple wardrobe with looking-glass doors and china knobs to the drawers. Mrs. P. said the house was a bijou, and that if the two treasures she had recommended to us as cook and housemaid only kept it in order, as she would see that they did (I said, “Thank you:” I made a mental resolve to have no interference from her; but I committed myself to nothing by saying “thank you”), we should have the most perfect establishment at the West-end. It was Haverstock-hill, but she called it the West-end. Well, we were in the drawing-room; we had admired everything — and Rosa Matilda would make me open all the cabinet-drawers and all the chiffonier doors; they were stiff, and I hurt myself; but we weren’t married yet, so of course I couldn’t be rude enough to refuse — and we were just going away, when all of a sudden Mrs. P. was struck by the hearthrug.

“It was so beautifully soft; and those lovely forget-me-nots!” (The blue roses were forget-me-nots.) “Such an exquisite, such a” — she might say— “poetical idea. It was really like walking on the Idyls of the King. It seemed the heaven,” if she might be so bold as to make such a paraphrase, “up-breaking through the hearth.”

I said, “O, ah; yes, to be sure.” I didn’t quite know what she was driving at, when Rosa Matilda said, in her most gushing manner — that was the worst of Rosa Matilda, she would gush —

“O mamma, mamma! wouldn’t Captain Thomas have been happy here?”

O, upon my word, I was close to a spring sofa, and I sank down on it aghast. I — I had furnished this house! I had submitted to, perhaps, such extortion from the most respectable of tradesmen as no man ever before endured.

Mrs. P. paid the bills for me; and there was a new sofa, value 12l. 12s. if a halfpenny, in her drawing-room in Mornington-place, that I never quite made out. I had done all this, and now I was told how happy Captain Thomas would have been in this house of my providing. O! I am not a man prone to use unconstitutional language, but I said, “O!” But, bless you, this was nothing; the Thunderer hadn’t done with me yet.

“Yes; wouldn’t he?” said that elderly serpent of a mother-in-law, that was to have been, of mine. “This hearthrug, how he would have loved it! He would have appreciated it more than you do, Mr. Strothers, I know.”

“O, would he?” This, of course, was a hit at my want of taste. Captain Thomas would have understood the aesthetics of those blue anomalies; they were as big as breakfast-cups.

“Yes, mamma; for I should have brought him here, you know, poor darling, if we hadn’t lost him,” said Rosa Matilda. “You shouldn’t have kept him all to yourself, I can tell you.”

O, now! talk of — well, a rivalry between mother and daughter! Why, in the Roman Empire at its very worst stage of corruption, when Vitellius set the Tiber on fire, and played the violin while it was blazing, when Julius Cæsar lighted Athens with burning Calvinists, could there have been anything worse than this?

I said, “Ha, ha!” I was quite beyond words, so I said, “Ha, ha!”

“The dear,” she continued — my wife, that was to be, continued (why, Desdemona bothering Othello about that pocket-handkerchief she wanted him to give to Cassio, was nothing to this!),— “you would have grown so fond of him, Benjamin!”

Should I, Benjamin? O, I daresay. “No,” I said, “no, madam; I will have no Captain Thomases here. I — I — since it’s gone so far, and since the house is furnished, and my new coat come home, we will say no more; but no Thomases here; no, no!”

“You don’t like them?” she said; “how very odd!”

O, odd was it? Well! I had seen a book, with a yellow paper-cover, at Mornington-place; a book in a foreign language; and I attributed the evident absence of moral region in the cerebral development of the woman I adored to a gradual eating away of that department of the brain, from the perusal of books in a foreign language; and I registered another vow, that when married to me, Rosa Matilda should only read those sterling English works of fiction which elevate the moral sense while they develop the intellectual organs. She should have her Pierian draught from the pure fountains of Fielding and Smollett, the pious inculcations of Jonathan Sterne (connected with the Church, I know, and I believe an Irish bishop). Not for her lips those exciting and poisonous beverages whose spring is in Soho-square and the Burlington Arcade, to say nothing of obliging Mr. Jeffs at Brighton, and that handy little shop in Holborn at which I myself deal.

Well, this was the second time of my hearing that hateful name. Let me now describe the third. It was the night before our wedding — I mean, it was to have been the night before our wedding — I went to drink tea with my charmer; the cup which cheers, &c., and the lightest of suppers, were the only refreshments I ever obtained from Mrs. Pocklinton, whose widowed circumstances forbade dinner-giving. In the hall I trod into a raised pie; the confectioner’s youth had left it on the door-mat while he handed the maid other cates. They were for the wedding-breakfast — I mean, they were to have been for the wedding-breakfast. It is hard that the conventionalities of this world condemn one to indigestion on the happiest day of one’s life. One’s mother-in-law has to pay for the sacrificial feast, that’s one comfort.

It was rather a dismal evening than otherwise; the house was suffering from an eruption of sharp-edged trunks and bonnet-boxes, and the effect on one’s shins was disagreeable. Rosa Matilda was low-spirited, and burst out crying at the sight of the Britannia-metal teapot, saying it was the last time she should ever have tea out of that dear old teapot. But, as I said before, that was the worst of Rosa Matilda; there was too much of the “gushing thing” about this Hampstead-road child of nature. I directed the luggage-labels for her boxes. We were going to Paris — and I couldn’t spell Meurice’s Hotel; it was aggravating, and Rosa Matilda’s spirits improved so much as to enable her to laugh at me. Altogether, I was not sorry when the time arrived for my departure. Mrs. Pocklinton squeezed my hand as we parted, and told me there was not another man in England (how did she know? she didn’t know all the other men in England) to whom she could have so confidently trusted the happiness of her beloved child. She would have said the same words to either Brown, Jones, or Robinson, I knew; but I did my best to look grateful, — and so we parted.

The Thunderer was at it again!

I hadn’t gone three hundred yards before I suddenly remembered that I didn’t remember what time I was to meet them at St. Paneras Church on the following day. It might be at seven in the morning; it might be at four in the afternoon. I must go back and inquire. That housemaid of theirs was, as usual, flirting with the policeman at the garden-gate, consequently the hall-door was open. I passed her and went in; the parlour-door was ajar — and I heard — yes, I heard from the lips of the woman I was going to marry — these passionate exclamations:

“My darling Tom, my own precious Thomas! Ums Thomas!” In the whole course of our loves she had never called me Ums Benjamin. Ums was evidently a mysterious expression of endearment, especially consecrate to this military or naval deceiver, “Ums Thomas has come back to ums; ums naughty boy, then! There!”

After the “There!” there was that indescribable and unmistakable sound — something between the whistling of birds in wet weather and the drawing of corks — which one is in the habit of hearing under the mistletoe. She — my “future” — was kissing Captain Thomas, or Captain Thomas was kissing her! What mattered it which? Ruin either way!

There was an umbrella-stand in the hall. I retreated into the shadow thereof as Rosa Matilda rushed out of the room.

Mamma!” she called at the foot of the stairs; “Mamma, would you believe it? he’s come back! The Captain! He came in at the back-bedroom window.”

Back-bedroom window! Pretty goings-on! I saw it in perspective in the Sunday papers, headed “Frightful Depravity in the Hampstead-road!”

“He’s so thin, mamma! O, so thin; quite wasted away! I’m sure he’s been shut up somewhere.”

The profligate! In prison for debt, I daresay. The Bench, or Whitecross-street.

“And his whiskers, mamma, his dear whiskers are grown at least an inch longer!” and then she bounded into the parlour again; and the bird-whistling and the cork-drawing began again.

“And um darling Thomas will never, never, never leave his Rosey Posey again — will he?”

And really now, what made the conduct of this young woman seem more than ordinarily culpable was, that all the affection appeared to be on her side; for not one word had this apathetic naval or military commander uttered during the whole time.

Well, I think I’d heard enough. Now, wouldn’t any reasonable person suppose I’d heard enough? So I went quietly out of the house, and home to my chambers, where I packed a carpet-bag, took a cab, and left London by the mail-train for Dover, thence to Paris, whence I was recalled by a letter from Mrs. Pocklinton’s solicitor.

I am not a raving maniac, or a jibbering idiot; and my hair did not turn white in a single night, as it might have done.

There was an action for Breach of Promise of Marriage, and I had to pay one thousand pounds damages. Captain Thomas was a very handsome BLACK CAT, which Rosa Matilda had been attached to from his kittenhood, and the temporary loss of which had lacerated her tender heart.

I offered — I offered! — nay, I implored her to marry me, and forget the past; but she wouldn’t; and she has since married Robinson; and my thousand pounds no doubt has furnished that elegant little house of theirs in the Regent’s Park, at the drawing-room window of which I saw, on passing the other day, basking in the sun, my old and bitterest enemy, Captain Thomas.

 

The Cold Embrace

He was an artist — such things as happened to him happen sometimes to artists.

He was a German — such things as happened to him happen sometimes to Germans.

He was young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving, heartless.

And being young, handsome, and eloquent, he was beloved.

He was an orphan, under the guardianship of his dead father’s brother, his uncle Wilhelm, in whose house he had been brought up from a little child; and she who loved him was his cousin — his cousin Gertrude, whom he swore he loved in return.

Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore it. It soon wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare and wretched a sentiment it became at last in the selfish heart of the student! But in its first golden dawn, when he was only nineteen, and had just returned from his apprenticeship to a great painter at Antwerp, and they wandered together in the most romantic outskirts of the city at rosy sunset, by holy moonlight, or bright and joyous morning, how beautiful a dream!

They keep it a secret from Wilhelm, as he has the father’s ambition of a wealthy suitor for his only child — a cold and dreary vision beside the lover’s dream.

So they are betrothed; and standing side by side when the dying sun and the pale rising moon divide the heavens, he puts the betrothal ring upon her finger, the white and taper finger whose slender shape he knows so well. This ring is a peculiar one, a massive golden serpent, its tail in its mouth, the symbol of eternity; it had been his mother’s, and he would know it amongst a thousand. If he were to become blind tomorrow, he could select it from amongst a thousand by the touch alone.

He places it on her finger, and they swear to be true to each other for ever and ever — through trouble and danger — in sorrow and change — in wealth or poverty. Her father must needs be won to consent to their union by and by, for they were now betrothed, and death alone could part them.

But the young student, the scoffer at revelation, yet the enthusiastic adorer of the mystical, asks:

“Can death part us? I would return to you from the grave, Gertrude. My soul would come back to be near my love. And you — you, if you died before me — the cold earth would not hold you from me; if you loved me, you would return, and again these fair arms would be clasped round my neck as they are now.”

But she told him, with a holier light in her deep-blue eyes than had ever shone in his — she told him that the dead who die at peace with God are happy in heaven, and cannot return to the troubled earth; and that it is only the suicide — the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels shut the door of Paradise — whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of the living.

The first year of their betrothal is passed, and she is alone, for he has gone to Italy, on a commission for some rich man, to copy Raphaels, Titians, Guidos, in a gallery at Florence. He has gone to win fame, perhaps; but it is not the less bitter — he is gone!

Of course her father misses his young nephew, who has been as a son to him; and he thinks his daughter’s sadness no more than a cousin should feel for a cousin’s absence.

In the mean time, the weeks and months pass. The lover writes — often at first, then seldom — at last, not at all.

How many excuses she invents for him! How many times she goes to the distant little post-office, to which he is to address his letters! How many times she hopes, only to be disappointed! How many times she despairs, only to hope again!

But real despair comes at last, and will not be put off any more. The rich suitor appears on the scene, and her father is determined. She is to marry at once. The wedding-day is fixed — the fifteenth of June.

The date seems burnt into her brain.

The date, written in fire, dances for ever before her eyes.

The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in her ears.

But there is time yet — it is the middle of May — there is time for a letter to reach him at Florence; there is time for him to come to Brunswick, to take her away and marry her, in spite of her father — in spite of the whole world.

But the days and weeks fly by, and he does not write — he does not come. This is indeed despair which usurps her heart, and will not be put away.

It is the fourteenth of June. For the last time she goes to the little post-office; for the last time she asks the old question, and they give her for the last time the dreary answer, “No; no letter.”

For the last time — for to-morrow is the day appointed for her bridal. Her father will hear no entreaties; her rich suitor will not listen to her prayers. They will not be put off a day — an hour; to-night alone is hers — this night, which she may employ as she will.

She takes another path than that which leads home; she hurries through some by-streets of the city, out on to a lonely bridge, where he and she had stood so often in the sunset, watching the rose-coloured light glow, fade, and die upon the river.

* * * * * * * * * * *

He returns from Florence. He had received her letter. That letter, blotted with tears, entreating, despairing — he had received it, but he loved her no longer. A young Florentine, who had sat to him for a model, had bewitched his fancy — that fancy which with him stood in place of a heart — and Gertrude had been half forgotten. If she had a richer suitor, good; let her marry him; better for her, better far for himself. He had no wish to fetter himself with a wife. Had he not his art always? — his eternal bride, his unchanging mistress.

Thus he thought it wiser to delay his journey to Brunswick, so that he should arrive when the wedding was over — arrive in time to salute the bride.

And the vows — the mystical fancies — the belief in his return, even after death, to the embrace of his beloved? O, gone out of his life; melted away for ever, those foolish dreams of his boyhood.

So on the fifteenth of June he enters Brunswick, by that very bridge on which she stood, the stars looking down on her, the night before. He strolls across the bridge and down by the water’s edge, a great rough dog at his heels, and the smoke from his short meerschaum-pipe curling in blue wreaths fantastically in the pure morning air. He has his sketchbook under his arm, and, attracted now and then by some object that catches his artist’s eye, stops to draw: a few weeds and pebbles on the river’s brink — a crag on the opposite shore — a group of pollard willows in the distance. When he has done, he admires his drawing, shuts his sketchbook, empties the ashes from his pipe, refills from his tobacco-pouch, sings the refrain of a gay drinking-song, calls to his dog, smokes again, and walks on. Suddenly he opens his sketch-book again; this time that which attracts him is a group of figures: but what is it?

It is not a funeral, for there are no mourners.

It is not a funeral, but it is a corpse lying on a rude bier, covered with an old sail, carried between two bearers.

It is not a funeral, for the bearers are fishermen — fishermen in their every-day garb.

About a hundred yards from him they rest their burden on a bank — one stands at the head of the bier, the other throws himself down at the foot of it.

And thus they form a perfect group; he walks back two or three paces, selects his point of sight, and begins to sketch a hurried outline. He has finished it before they move; he hears their voices, though he cannot hear their words, and wonders what they can be talking of. Presently he walks on and joins them.

“You have a corpse there, my friends?” he says.

“Yes; a corpse washed ashore an hour ago.”

“Drowned?”

“Yes, drowned; — a young girl, very handsome.”

“Suicides are always handsome,” says the painter; and then he stands for a little while idly smoking and meditating, looking at the sharp outline of the corpse and the stiff folds of the rough canvas-covering.

Life is such a golden holiday for him — young, ambitious, clever — that it seems as though sorrow and death could have no part in his destiny.

At last he says that, as this poor suicide is so handsome, he should like to make a sketch of her.

He gives the fishermen some money, and they offer to remove the sailcloth that covers her features.

No; he will do it himself. He lifts the rough, coarse, wet canvas from her face. What face?

The face that shone on the dreams of his foolish boyhood; the face which once was the light of his uncle’s home. His cousin Gertrude — his betrothed!

He sees, as in one glance, while he draws one breath, the rigid features — the marble arms — the hands crossed on the cold bosom; and, on the third finger of the left hand, the ring which had been his mother’s — the golden serpent; the ring which, if he were to become blind, he could select from a thousand others by the touch alone.

But he is a genius and a metaphysician — grief, true grief, is not for such as he. His first thought is flight — flight anywhere out of that accursed city — anywhere far from the brink of that hideous river — anywhere away from memory, away from remorse — anywhere to forget.

* * * * * * * * * * *

He is miles on the road that leads away from Brunswick before he knows that he has walked a step.

It is only when his dog lies down panting at his feet that he feels how exhausted he is himself, and sits down upon a bank to rest. How the landscape spins round and round before his dazzled eyes, while his morning’s sketch of the two fishermen and the canvas-covered bier glares redly at him out of the twilight!

At last, after sitting a long time by the roadside, idly playing with his dog, idly smoking, idly lounging, looking as any idle, light-hearted travelling student might look, yet all the while acting over that morning’s scene in his burning brain a hundred times a minute; at last he grows a little more composed, and tries presently to think of himself as he is, apart from his cousin’s suicide. Apart from that, he was no worse off than he was yesterday. His genius was not gone; the money he had earned at Florence still lined his pocket-book; he was his own master, free to go whither he would.

And while he sits on the roadside, trying to separate himself from the scene of that morning — trying to put away the image of the corpse covered with the damp canvas sail — trying to think of what he should do next, where he should go, to be farthest away from Brunswick and remorse, the old diligence comes rumbling and jingling along. He remembers it; it goes from Brunswick to Aix-la-Chapelle.

He whistles to his dog, shouts to the postillion to stop, and springs into the coupé.

During the whole evening, through the long night, though he does not once close his eyes, he never speaks a word; but when morning dawns, and the other passengers awake and begin to talk to each other, he joins in the conversation. He tells them that he is an artist, that he is going to Cologne and to Antwerp to copy the Rubenses, and the great picture by Quentin Matsys, in the museum. He remembered afterwards that he talked and laughed boisterously, and that when he was talking and laughing loudest, a passenger, older and graver than the rest, opened the window near him, and told him to put his head out. He remembered the fresh air blowing in his face, the singing of the birds in his ears, and the flat fields and roadside reeling before his eyes. He remembered this, and then falling in a lifeless heap on the floor of the diligence.

It is a fever that keeps him for six long weeks laid on a bed at a hotel in Aix-la-Chapelle.

He gets well, and, accompanied by his dog, starts on foot for Cologne. By this time he is his former self once more. Again the blue smoke from his short meerschaum curls upwards in the morning air — again he sings some old university drinking-song — again stops here and there, meditating and sketching.

He is happy, and has forgotten his cousin — and so, on to Cologne.

It is by the great cathedral he is standing, with his dog at his side. It is night, the bells have just chimed the hour, and the clocks are striking eleven; the moonlight shines full upon the magnificent pile, over which the artist’s eye wanders, absorbed in the beauty of form.

He is not thinking of his drowned cousin, for he has forgotten her and is happy.

Suddenly someone, something from behind him, puts two cold arms round his neck, and clasps its hands on his breast.

And yet there is no one behind him, for on the flags bathed in the broad moonlight there are only two shadows, his own and his dog’s. He turns quickly round — there is no one — nothing to be seen in the broad square but himself and his dog; and though he feels, he cannot see the cold arms clasped round his neck.

It is not ghostly, this embrace, for it is palpable to the touch — it cannot be real, for it is invisible.

He tries to throw off the cold caress. He clasps the hands in his own to tear them asunder, and to cast them off his neck. He can feel the long delicate fingers cold and wet beneath his touch, and on the third, finger of the left hand he can feel the ring which was his mother’s — the golden serpent — the ring which he has always said he would know among a thousand by the touch alone. He knows it now!

His dead cousin’s cold arms are round his neck — his dead cousin’s wet hands are clasped upon his breast. He asks himself if he is mad. “Up, Leo!” he shouts. “Up, up, boy!” and the Newfoundland leaps to his shoulders — the dog’s paws are on the dead hands, and the animal utters a terrific howl, and springs away from his master.

The student stands in the moonlight, the dead arms round his neck, and the dog at a little distance moaning piteously.

Presently a watchman, alarmed by the howling of the dog, comes into the square to see what is wrong.

In a breath the cold arms are gone.

He takes the watchman home to the hotel with him and gives him money; in his gratitude he could have given that man half his little fortune.

Will it ever come to him again, this embrace of the dead?

He tries never to be alone; he makes a hundred acquaintances, and shares the chamber of another student. He starts up if he is left by himself in the public room at the inn where he is staying, and runs into the street. People notice his strange actions, and begin to think that he is mad.

But, in spite of all, he is alone once more; for one night the public room being empty for a moment, when on some idle pretence he strolls into the street, the street is empty too, and for the second time he feels the cold arms round his neck, and for the second time, when he calls his dog, the animal slinks away from him with a piteous howl.

After this he leaves Cologne, still travelling on foot — of necessity now, for his money is getting low. He joins travelling hawkers, he walks side by side with labourers, he talks to every foot-passenger he falls in with, and tries from morning till night to get company on the road.

At night he sleeps by the fire in the kitchen of the inn at which he stops; but do what he will, he is often alone, and it is now a common thing for him to feel the cold arms around his neck.

Many months have passed since his cousin’s death — autumn, winter, early spring. His money is nearly gone, his health is utterly broken, he is the shadow of his former self, and he is getting near Paris. He will reach that city at the time of the Carnival. To this he looks forward. In Paris, in Carnival time, he need never, surely, be alone, never feel that deadly caress; he may even recover his lost gaiety, his lost health, once more resume his profession, once more earn fame and money by his art.

How hard he tries to get over the distance that divides him from Paris, while day by day he grows weaker, and his step slower and more heavy!

But there is an end at last; the long dreary roads are passed. This is Paris, which he enters for the first time — Paris, of which he has dreamed so much — Paris, whose million voices are to exorcise his phantom.

To him to-night Paris seems one vast chaos of lights, music, and confusion — lights which dance before his eyes and will not be still — music that rings in his ears and deafens him — confusion which makes his head whirl round and round.

But, in spite of all, he finds the opera-house, where there is a masked ball. He has enough money left to buy a ticket of admission, and to hire a domino to throw over his shabby dress. It seems only a moment after his entering the gates of Paris that he is in the very midst of the wild gaiety of the opera-house ball.

No more darkness, no more loneliness, but a mad crowd, shouting and dancing, and a lovely Débardeuse hanging on his arm.

The boisterous gaiety he feels surely is his old light-heartedness come back. He hears the people round him talking of the outrageous conduct of some drunken student, and it is to him they point when they say this — to him, who has not moistened his lips since yesterday at noon, for even now he will not drink; though his lips are parched, and his throat burning, he cannot drink. His voice is thick and hoarse, and his utterance indistinct; but still this must be his old lightheartedness come back that makes him so wildly gay.

The little Débardeuse is wearied out — her arm rests on his shoulder heavier than lead — the other dancers one by one drop off.

The lights, in the chandeliers one by one die out.

The decorations look pale and shadowy in that dim light which is neither night nor day.

A faint glimmer from the dying lamps, a pale streak of cold gray light from the new-born day, creeping in through half-opened shutters.

And by this light the bright-eyed Débardeuse fades sadly. He looks her in the face. How the brightness of her eyes dies out! Again he looks her in the face. How white that face has grown! Again — and now it is the shadow of a face alone that looks in his.

Again — and they are gone — the bright eyes, the face, the shadow of the face. He is alone; alone in that vast saloon.

Alone, and, in the terrible silence, he hears the echoes of his own footsteps in that dismal dance which has no music.

No music but the beating of his heart against his breast. For the cold arms are round his neck — they whirl him round, they will not be flung off, or cast away; he can no more escape from their icy grasp than he can escape from death. He looks behind him — there is nothing but himself in the great empty salle; but he can feel — cold, deathlike, but O, how palpable! — the long slender fingers, and the ring which was his mother’s.

He tries to shout, but he has no power in his burning throat. The silence of the place is only broken by the echoes of his own footsteps in the dance from which he cannot extricate himself. Who says he has no partner? The cold hands are clasped on his breast, and now he does not shun their caress. No! One more polka, if he drops down dead.

The lights are all out, and half an hour after, the gendarmes come in with a lantern to see that the house is empty; they are followed by a great dog that they have found seated howling on the steps of the theatre. Near the principal entrance they stumble over —

The body of a student, who has died from want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood-vessel.

 

My Daughters

I have grown-up daughters. Perhaps after having written that sentence there is not, in reality, the least occasion for me to write any more. To the initiated (i.e. parties having grown-up daughters themselves) I am sure there is not. They can guess what I have suffered; for the very simple reason that they have most likely suffered the same themselves. But to the uninitiated, this brief record of misery may prove a warning.

I repeat, I have grown-up daughters, and I suffer. Mind, I lay a peculiar emphasis on the compound adjective “grownup.” My daughters, while in the nursery, were merely associated with such minor evils as measles, juvenile parties, dancing-lessons, red sashes half-a-yard wide, and refractory governesses. They came down to dessert, and made themselves ill with unripe fruits, or smeared their infantine faces with preserved ginger, and were sticky and unpleasant to the touch; beyond this, they were harmless; and when I saw them encircling the shining mahogany after dinner, with round faces and white frocks, after the manner of that Titan among the caricaturists, the late John Leech, I used to think it, on the whole, rather a nice thing to have daughters. Ah, I little knew! They are now grown up. They are of a sentimental and poetical temperament. I don’t find that fact to make any difference whatever in my butcher’s bill. My baker’s account is not to be sneezed at (indeed, I wish the bread purveyor would accept such a mode of remuneration). If I am so weak-minded as to allow myself to be led by Juliana, Augustina, and Frederica (their mamma chose their names) into a pastrycook’s shop, I emerge therefrom a wiser and a poorer man; but, for all this, they are romantic — very romantic. They would like to break blood-vessels; or to go mad, and let their back-hair down. They would deny this, but I know better. Now I am a plain man, morally a very plain man; there is a fine oil-painting of me by Tomkins over my diningroom mantelpiece; — personally, perhaps, I am not plain; there is a double-chin in that picture that I never had, which I attribute to personal enmity on the part of Tomkins.

I am not romantic; I am not sentimental. If I saw a dead ass I should not cry; on the contrary, I should think it rather a good job. Nobody will cry when I die, I daresay. Mrs. Blankstars will get the £3,000 for which I am insured, and will be glad. The girls have fair complexions, and will look well in mourning. I do not expect to be regretted.

I am, I repeat, not sentimental; if I met a young person with a goat, I should do my best to avoid her, lest she should ask me for alms. I cannot see why “a primose on a river’s brim” should be of any more value than a primrose anywhere else — less valuable, I should think, if anything, as being in an inconvenient position. I am a practical man, and I look at things in a practical light; if I put half-a-sovereign on the drawing-room table, or if I take the same coin to Italy and place it on the banks of the Lake of Como, it would only be ten shillings. Why, then, should a mere difference of position alter the value of a primrose? And what is the value of a primrose? You can buy them in Covent Garden for twopence a bunch, and if you happen to live at Brompton, as I do, you will find them apt to grow warm and collapse unpleasantly before you have conveyed them to your abode. I was once persuaded to walk half through one of the Ridings of Yorkshire with a great bundle of hyacinths in my arms; of course they were flabby and faded when I got home. Hyacinths are very well in the abstract, “the heavens upbreaking through the earth,” and all that sort of thing; but in the concrete, especially if you have to carry them, they’re a decided nuisance. But my three girls, Juliana, Augustina, and Frederica, are so many embodied and perambulatory Sentimental Journeys.

O, what I suffer! There was Adam Bede. Talk of the cholera, or the measles, or any of the prevailing epidemics a family man is subject to; what are they to a new novel breaking out in his household, and every member of that household taking it successively! Then there was the “Idyls of the King.” I’ve not got over that yet. I really think, if that respected individual the Laureate could only form any conception of the terrors he inflicts on the respectable fathers of families, he wouldn’t do it; I repeat, he wouldn’t do it. Good gracious me! what I have suffered through that man ever since my daughters entered their teens, or even before, would draw tears from the eyes of a Board of Works. O, the anguish I have endured! Let me only refuse those horrid girls a new silk gown, or a box at the opera, or a flower-show at Chiswick, and that moment I am assailed with the information that their lives are “weary,” and that, on the whole, they’d find it agreeable to be dead. That “he” (name unknown) “does not come,” ultimately “will not come,” “she” (name also unknown) “said.” This is a nice thing to have thrown in one’s face. Anything to avoid this! So I purchase the dress, or the box, or the tickets for the horticultural fête, and fondly hope for relief. Am I any better off? Not a bit of it. They dance round me, call me the best of papas, and immediately begin to request Mrs. Blankstars to “call” them “early,” for they’re “to be Queen of the May, mother dear,” and “to-morrow” (Chiswick Fête) “is the happiest day in all the livelong year.” Do I venture — as, being the head of the family, I have a right to do — to repel the attentions of my junior clerk, with a salary of fifty pounds per annum, who has presumed to fall in love with my youngest, I am informed immediately that “high hearts are more than coronets,” and am insulted at my own table under cover of “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” and have rude remarks made to me about the “gardener Adam and his wife.” It is foreign to the purpose of this paper to state that I am pursued by the works of this dreadful man even at my office, where my clerks write quotations from “Locksley Hall” on my desk, thereby injuring those articles of furniture; where my articled clerk recites the “Charge of the Six Hundred,” while I am out of the room, and whittles the office-stools with a penknife in his excitement; or twists the sealing-wax into hot lumps with indignant perspiration, on the subject of “Lady Clara;” where my junior partner reads the “Idyls” under cover of a lease which he pretends to be perusing; and where I am sometimes greeted by parchments indorsed “In re Stubbs and Guinivere.”

Well, we were scarcely out of Adam Bede, when the girls sickened for the “Idyls.” They had a great struggle, so tremendous was the demand, to get it from Mudie’s; and I’m sure for a week, our man-servant, Higgs, aged fourteen, almost lived upon the road between Brompton and Bloomsbury. At last, the modest green-covered volume arrived. O, little did I think what a viper that innocent-seeming book would prove! The girls had high words that very evening about the perusal thereof; they all wanted it at once, and their mamma only restored peace by persuading Egbert, my only son, to read the poems aloud. He is not a good reader, my son Egbert; at a very early age, when his “name was Norval,” I foresaw that oratory would not be his strong point. Indeed, I took an entirely erroneous idea of several Shakespearian characters from that child’s recitations; and can scarcely now dispossess myself of the conviction that the cholera was raging in Denmark during the reign of Hamlet’s uncle, and that the afflicted prince was the chief sufferer. There were great effects in “To be or not to be,” as rendered by my son, which no physiologist could attribute to any cause but that exhausting complaint. It was my firm opinion, too, that Othello was a victim to aggravated toothache; Iago owns to having been troubled with it, and I’m sure my son hit off that phase of the Machiavellian Italian’s character to a nicety. There was a very interesting will-case in the Times of that day, and I had made up my mind for a pleasant evening, and there was that awful boy droning out the adventures of a young woman, who had, apparently, a very unpleasant husband, whose conduct would have come under 3 George, IV, cap. 17, and Victoria, 3 & 4 Vict cap. 30. Oh, what I endured! I assure you that during the first week of the “Idyll” attack I was positively afraid to bring home any gentleman of my acquaintance to dinner, for I felt convinced that should he inadvertently, on his taking leave, have said, “By the bye, Miss Blankstars, can I do anything for you in town to-morrow?” my daughter Frederica would have taken off her chenille net and pulled the hair-pins and the frizzy things out of her hair, and would have marched straight up to him, and said, “I have gone mad, I love you, let me die!” — and there’d have been a situation for the father of a family! I dined at the Crown and Sceptre, Greenwich, during this awful period, with Bangstaff, late of the late East India Company, and I had scarcely the courage to look out of the window of that hostelry, for fear I should behold my youngest floating down the river on a Chelsea coal-barge, steered by a young man from the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. They were always repeating passages from this fearful work. One in particular I remember, because I thought it was a conundrum; it ran thus:

“His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

I hazarded a guess, and said, “Because he was the Bishop of London.” My unnatural children laughed at me. This is a feeble description of my sufferings; we have not got over the “Idyls” yet, nor will anything eradicate the disease but a new poem by the same author.

Then, again, Friedrich the Second; what have I not gone through in the cause of that potentate, to say nothing of three hundred and sixty-two pages of his ancestors! What’s-his-name with the arrow, and Thingemabob the Bear, and spectre-hunting Kaisers, with fathers in red stockings, fighting duels with Termagants, and apparently getting the worst of it. O, the abusive names I have been called, on venturing to remonstrate on the subject of milliners’ bills! Dryasdusts, phosphorescent blockheads, putrefied specialities, and all sorts of insulting epithets have rained down on this devoted head, Talk of rehabilitation, too; what have I not endured in that way! My opinions are positively not worth a day’s purchase. To-day they have been reading that dear Mr. Froude, and tell me, when I come home to dinner, that Henry the Eighth was an exemplary husband, and cut off his wives’ heads for the good of the country. Yesterday they had been perusing that delightful Monsieur Capefigue, and I was informed that Louis the Fifteenth was an excellent family man, and Madame du Barry a most respectable young person. I am quite prepared to hear, in the course of next week, that Dr. Johnson was distinguished for his polished and conciliating manners, and that Lord Chesterfield was a warm-hearted bear. Let them come on!

Then my daughters are perpetually taking up popular ideas. A twelvemonth ago they took up the Italian question; not that they knew anything about it, but they associated it with the opera, cheap ices, Mr. Turner’s pictures, Jerusalem delivered, Savoy biscuits, “I promessi sposi” and organ-boys; and they took it up, and for the period of three weeks were so many Miss Whites.

Of course it is only natural that, being blest with three marriageable daughters, their settlement in life is a question of some importance to Mrs. Blankstars and myself. But, good gracious me! what are you to do with girls who form their idea of a husband from the last book they read, and whose standard of perfection alters every time John Thomas brings a fresh cargo from Mudie’s? When the “Idyl” fever was at its maximum, they would hear of nothing in the way of a husband but a stern, cold, impassible, and dignified person, whose voice was “hollow and monotonous like a ghost’s;” and I set my wits to work to find someone amongst my acquaintance answering to the description. I found the very thing — Stiggins, an Essex oyster-merchant, with two thousand a-year, and a splendid place outside Colchester; a solemn, elderly fogy, but a warm man. I invited him to dinner for the following Sunday. He would have been an excellent match for my daughter Juliana; Juliana is getting on, and has taken lately to geology; I heard her make some remarks the other day about the old red sandstone that made me rather anxious to see her settled. It’s a bad sign, old red sandstone, and always sounds like the wrong side of thirty. So I invited Stiggins to dinner. I might, have saved myself the trouble; before Sunday came they were attacked by the Tale of Two Cities, and wouldn’t have anything but a dissipated barrister, who tied wet towels round his head, and made himself supremely wretched about nothing particular. Now I was not going to indulge them in this, or else there is Montague Bluffers of Fig-tree-court, Temple, who never had a brief in his life, and whom I actually caught once, at ten o’clock in the morning, with his towel dripping wet rolled round his head like a turban, sitting up in bed drinking soda-water and strong green tea, and reading French novels. But this wasn’t the sort of thing for me, so I left them to get over Sidney Carton as best they might, and the following week nothing would do for them but John Halifax, Gentleman. I thought this sounded like the manufacturing towns, and I brought them home a Manchester man of my acquaintance; but he hadn’t read Tennyson, and he ate fish with his knife, so he didn’t meet their views.

One blessing, however, is that a very little satisfies them in the fleshly representatives of their ideal heroes, and I am often surprised by being told that young FitzGigfiz of the Blues, who parts his hair down the middle, and who never had an idea in his life, is the very image of Lancelot of the Lake, or that Hokus (of Pokus, Hokus, and Sons, bankers, Lombard-street) is the living representative of Augustine Caxton. Hokus buys black-letter books and rare editions, and will give fifteen guineas for a single volume, if it is only dirty enough. I am sure, during the Adam-Bede fever, I was quite fidgety whilst our carpenter Humphries, a most respectable person and by no means bad-looking, was in the house, putting down the stair-carpets, for I daily expected that Augustina would express a desire to marry him, and turn methodist preacher.

There is another source of suffering too: my girls sing. The Signor Caterwaulini is an expensive man; but I don’t so much mind that, for he teaches them Italian songs, and I don’t object to Italian songs. One doesn’t understand the words; one can go to sleep. What does it matter to me if “Una voce poco fa”? I’m sure “Una voce” was quite at liberty to do anything of the sort, if it was agreeable to him. But O, the agony of those English songs! That dreadful Annie, who is left in sorrow; that abominable phantasmal fantasticality (P. F. is a specimen of the bad language those girls have taught me), that decomposed inanity, “Willie,” the young person who is always missed. I really was put to the blush the other day, on bringing William Williams, of Lloyd’s, home to dinner, to find Juliana seated at the piano, singing, “O, Willie, we have missed you; welcome, welcome home!” Mrs. Blankstars told quite another story, for there was only cold meat for dinner, and she looked like thunder. As to that young woman who has been requested to go into the garden without intermission for these last four years and upwards, and who has apparently never gone, I will refrain from stating my feelings with regard to her, for there is a degree of bitterness in those feelings untranslateable in these pages. If I do not fully appreciate the amount of hardship involved in the necessity of bestowing “the hand” where it is utterly impossible “the heart” can, either at the present time or any remoter period, be its accompaniment, it is not for want of having heard enough about it. In short, so much have I suffered from Stephen Glover, Balfe, and the Christy Minstrels, that on my daughters yesterday stating in chorus that they were “off to Charlestown early in the morning,” I really felt inclined to take them at their word, and give them a cheque for their outfit and travelling expenses. There are no limits to the recitals I could give of my acute sufferings of some eight years; but as there are limits to the patience of my readers, and, as wise Herbert has said, it is no more good manners “to talk all than to eat all at a feast,” I will say no more; but with a solemn warning — warning not to be disregarded, however short falling of dismal truth, or inarticulately rendered, said warning may be — close my dreary record.

Let the fathers of families see that their daughters, from a very early age, are taught that life has something better to demand of them than novel-reading, or even worship of sublime and unapproachable Alfred; that these, good in themselves, are a means, not an end; and that if their books do not teach them better things than to lie on the sofa all day reading them, and to spend all the rest of the day talking of them, they do not read those books aright. What better — or what in a hundredth degree so good — can I say than this? Let them be taught to follow the precept of their own prophet:

“If time be heavy on your hands,
Are there no beggars at your gates,
Nor any poor about your lands?
O, teach the orphan boy to read,
Or teach the orphan girl to sew.”

 

The Mystery At Fernwood

“No, Isabel, I do not consider that Lady Adela seconded her son’s invitation at all warmly.”

This was the third time within the last hour that my aunt had made the above remark. We were seated opposite each other in a first-class carriage of the York express, and the flat fields of ripening wheat were flitting by as like yellow shadows under the afternoon sunshine. We were going on a visit to Fernwood, a country mansion ten miles from York, in order that I might become acquainted with the family of Mr. Lewis Wendale, to whose only son Laurence I was engaged to be married.

Laurence Wendale and I had only been acquainted during the brief May and June of my first London season, which I — orphan heiress of a wealthy Calcutta merchant — had passed under the roof of my aunt, Mrs. Maddison Trevor, the dashing widow of a major in the Life Guards, and my father’s only sister. Mrs. Trevor had made many objections to this brief six weeks’ engagement between Laurence and me; but the impetuous young Yorkshireman had overruled everything. What objection could there be? he asked. He was to have two thousand a-year and Fernwood at his father’s death; forty thousand pounds from a maiden aunt the day he came of age — for he was not yet one-and-twenty, my impetuous young lover. As for his family, let Mrs. Trevor look into Burke’s County Families for the Wendales of Fernwood. His mother was Lady Adela, youngest daughter of Lord Kingwood, of Castle Kingwood, county Kildare. What objection could my aunt have, then? His family did not know me, and might not approve of the match, urged my aunt. Laurence laughed aloud; a long ringing peal of that merry, musical laughter I loved so well to hear.

“Not approve!” he cried—“not love my little Bella! That is too good a joke!” On which immediately followed an invitation to Fernwood, seconded by a note from Lady Adela Wendale.

To this note my aunt was never tired of taking objection. It was cold, it was constrained; it had been only written to please Laurence. How little I thought of the letter! and yet it was the first faint and shadowy indication of that terrible rock ahead upon which my life was to be wrecked; the first feeble link in the chain of the one great mystery in which the fate of so many was involved.

The letter was cold, certainly. Lady Adela started by declaring she should be most happy to see us; she was all anxiety to be introduced to her charming daughter-in-law. And then my lady ran off to tell us how dull Fernwood was, and how she feared we should regret our long journey into the heart of Yorkshire to a lonely country-house, where we should find no one but a captious invalid, a couple of nervous women, and a young man devoted to farming and field-sports.

But I was not afraid of being dull where my light-hearted Laurence was; and I overruled all my aunt’s objections, ordered half a dozen new dresses, and carried Mrs. Maddison Trevor off to the Great Northern Station before she had time to remonstrate.

Laurence had gone on before to see that all was prepared for us; and had promised to meet us at York, and drive us over to Fernwood in his mail-phaeton. He was standing on the platform as the train entered the station, radiant with life and happiness.

Laurence Wendale was very handsome; but perhaps his greatest charm consisted in that wonderful vitality, that untiring energy and indomitable spirit, which made him so different from all other young men whom I had met. So great was this vitality, that, by some magnetic influence, it seemed to communicate itself to others. I was never tired when Laurence was with me. I could waltz longer with him for my partner; ride longer in the Row with him for my cavalier; sit out an opera or examine an exhibition of pictures with less fatigue when he was near. His presence pervaded a whole house; his joyous laugh ran through every room. It seemed as if where he was sorrow could not come.

I felt this more than ever as we drew nearer Fernwood. The country was bleak and bare; wide wastes of moorland stretched away on either side of the by-road down which we drove. The afternoon sunshine had faded out, leaving a cold gray sky, with low masses of leaden cloud brooding close over the landscape, and shutting in the dim horizon. But no influence of scenery or atmosphere could affect Laurence. His spirits were even higher than usual this afternoon.

“They have fitted up the oak-rooms for you, ladies,” he said. “Such solemn and stately chambers, with high-canopied beds crowned with funeral plumes; black-oak paneling; portraits of dead-and-gone Wendales: Mistress Aurora, with pannier-hoops and a shepherdess’s crook; Mistress Lydia, with ringlets à la Sevignè and a pearl necklace; Mortimer Wendale, in a Ramilies wig; Theodore, with love-locks, velvet doublet, and Spanish-leather boots. Such a collection of them! You may expect to see them all descend from their frames in the witching time of night to warm their icy fingers at your sea-coal fires. Your expected arrival has made quite a sensation in our dull old abode. My mother has looked up from the last new novel half a dozen times this day, I verily believe, to ask if all due preparations were being made; while my dear, active, patient, indefatigable sister Lucy has been running about superintending the arrangements ever since breakfast.”

“Your sister Lucy!” I said, catching at his last words; “I shall so love her, Laurence.”

“I hope you will, darling,” he answered, almost gravely, “for she has been the best and dearest sister to me. And yet I’m half afraid; Lucy is ten years older than you — grave, reserved, sometimes almost melancholy; but if ever there was a banished angel treading this earth in human form, my sister Lucy surely is that guardian spirit.”

“Is she like you, Laurence?”

“Like me! O, no, not in the least. She is only my half-sister, you know. She resembles her mother, who died young.”

We were at the gates of Fernwood when he said this, — high wooden gates, with stone pillars moss-grown and dilapidated; a tumble-down-looking lodge, kept by a slatternly woman, whose children were at play in a square patch of ground planted with cabbages and currant-bushes, fenced in with a rotten paling, and ambitiously called a garden. From this lodge entrance a long avenue stretched away for about half a mile, at the end of which a great red-brick mansion, built in the Tudor style, frowned at us, rather as if in defiance than in welcome. The park was entirely uncultivated; the trunks of the trees were choked with the tangled underwood; the fern grew deep in the long vistas, broken here and there by solitary pools of black water, on whose quiet borders we heard the flap of the heron’s wing, and the dull croaking of an army of frogs.

Lady Adela was right. Fernwood was a dull place. I could scarcely repress a shudder as we drove along the dark avenue, while my poor aunt’s teeth chattered audibly. Accustomed to spend three parts of the year in Onslow-square, and the autumn months at Brighton or Ryde, this dreary Yorkshire mansion was a terrible trial to her rather oversensitive nerves.

Laurence seemed to divine the reason of our silence. “The place is frightfully neglected, Mrs. Trevor,” he said apologetically; “but I do not mean this sort of thing to last, I assure you. Before I bring my delicate little Bella to reign at Fernwood, I shall have landscape-gardeners and upholsterers down by the score, and do my best to convert this dreary wilderness into a terrestrial paradise. I cannot tell you why the place has been suffered to fall into decay; certainly not for want of money, still less for want of opportunity, for my father is an idle man, to whom one would imagine restoring and rebuilding would afford a delightful hobby. No, there is no reason why the place should have been so neglected.”

He said this more to himself than to us, as if the words were spoken in answer to some long train of thought of his own. I watched his face earnestly, for I had seldom seen him look so thoughtful. Presently he said, with more of his usual manner, “As you are close upon the threshold of Fernwood now ladies, I ought perhaps to tell you that you will find ours a most low-spirited family. With everything in life to make us happy, we seem for ever under a cloud. Ever since I can remember my poor father, he has been sinking slowly into decay, almost in the same way as this neglected place, till now he is a confirmed invalid, without any positive illness. My mother reads novels all day, and seems to exist upon sal-volatile and spirits of lavender. My sister, the only active person in the house, is always thoughtful, and very often melancholy. Mind, I merely tell you this to prepare you for anything you may see; not to depress you, for you may depend upon my exertions towards reforming this dreary household, which has sunk into habitual despondency from sheer easy fortune and want of vexation.”

The phaeton drew up before a broad flight of stone steps as Laurence ceased speaking, and in five minutes more he had assisted my aunt and myself to alight, and had ushered us into the presence of Lady Adela and Miss Lucy Wendale.

We found Lady Adela, as her son’s description had given us reason to expect, absorbed in a novel. She threw down her book as we entered, and advanced to meet us with considerable cordiality; rather, indeed, as if she really were grateful to us for breaking in upon her solitary life.

“It is so good of you to come,” she said, folding me in her slender arms with an almost motherly embrace, “and so kind of you, too, my dear Mrs. Trevor, to abandon all your town pleasures for the sake of bringing this dear girl to me. Believe me, we will do all in our power to make you comfortable, if you can put up with very limited society; for we have received no company whatever since my son’s childhood, and I do not think my visiting-list could muster half-a-dozen names.”

Lady Adela was an elegant-looking woman, in the very prime of life; but her handsome face was thin and careworn, and premature wrinkles gathered about her melancholy blue eyes and thoughtful mouth. While she was talking to my aunt, Lucy Wendale and I drew nearer to each other.

Laurence’s half-sister was by no means handsome; pale and sallow, with dark hair and rather dull gray eyes, she looked as if some hidden sorrow had quenched out the light of her life long ago, in her earliest youth; some sorrow that had neither been forgotten, nor lessened by time, but that had rather grown with her growth, and strengthened with her strength, until it had become a part of her very self, — some disappointed attachment, I thought, some cruel blow that had shattered a girl’s first dream, and left a broken-hearted woman to mourn the fatal delusion. In my utter ignorance of life, I thought these were the only griefs which ever left a woman’s life desolate.

“You will try and be happy at Fernwood, Isabel,” Miss Wendale said gently, as she drew me into a seat by her side, while Laurence bent fondly over us both. I do not believe, dear as we were to each other, that my Laurence ever loved me as he loved this pale-faced half-sister. “You will try and be happy, will you not, dear Isabel? Laurence has been breaking-in the prettiest chestnut mare in all Yorkshire, I think, that you may explore the country with us. I have heard what a daring horsewoman you are. The pianos have been put in tune for you, and the billiard-table re-covered, that you may have exercise on rainy days; and if we cannot give you much society, we will do all else to prevent your feeling dull.”

“I shall be very happy here with you, dear Lucy,” I said; “but you tell me so much of the dulness of Fernwood, while, I daresay, you yourself have a hundred associations that make the old place very dear to you.”

She looked down as I spoke, and a very faint flush broke through the sallow paleness of her complexion.

“I am not very fond of Fernwood,” she said gravely.

It was at Fernwood, then, that the great sorrow of her life came upon her, I thought.

“No, Lucy,” said Laurence almost impatiently, “everybody knows this dull place is killing you by inches, and yet nothing on earth can induce you to quit it. When we all go to Scarborough or Burlington, when mamma goes to Harrogate, when I run up to town to rub off my provincial rust, and see what the world is made of outside these dreary gates, — you obstinately persist in staying at home; and the only reason you can urge for doing so is, that you must remain here to take care of that unfortunate invalid of yours, Mr. William.”

I was holding Lucy’s hand in mine, and I felt the poor wasted little fingers tremble as her brother spoke. My curiosity was strongly aroused.

“Mr. William!” I exclaimed half involuntarily.

“Ah, to be sure, Bella, I forgot to tell you of that member of our household, but as I have never seen him, I may be forgiven the omission. This Mr. William is a poor relative of my father’s; a hopeless invalid, bedridden, I believe — is he not, Lucy? — who requires a strong man and an experienced nurse to look after him, and who occupies the entire upper story of one wing of the house. Poor Mr. William, invalid as he is, must certainly be a most fascinating person. My mother goes to see him every day, but as stealthily as if she were paying a secret visit to some condemned criminal. I have often met my father coming away from his rooms, pale and melancholy; and, as for my sister Lucy, she is so attached to this sick dependent of ours, that, as I have just said, nothing will induce her to leave the house, for fear his nurse or his valet should fail in their care of him.”

I still held Lucy’s hand, but it was perfectly steady now. Could this poor relative, this invalid dependent, have any part in the sorrowful mystery that had overshadowed her life? And yet, no; I thought that could scarcely be, for she looked up with such perfect self-possession as she answered her brother:

“My whole life has gradually fallen into the duty of attendance upon this poor young man, Laurence; and I will never leave Fernwood while he lives.”

A young man! Mr. William was a young man, then.

Lucy herself led us to the handsome suite of apartments prepared for my aunt and me. My aunt’s room was separated from mine by a corridor, out of which opened two dressing-rooms and a pretty little boudoir, all looking on to the park. My room was at the extreme angle of the building; it had two doors, one leading to the corridor communicating with my aunt’s apartments, the other opening into a gallery running the entire length of the house. Looking out into this gallery, I saw that the opposite wing was shut in by a baize door. I looked with some curiosity at this heavy baize door. It was most likely the barrier which closed the outer world upon Laurence Wendale’s invalid relation.

Lucy left us as soon as we were installed in our apartments. While I was dressing for dinner, the housekeeper, a stout, elderly woman, came to ask me if I found everything I required.

“As you haven’t brought your own servant with you, miss,” she said, “Miss Lucy told me to place her maid Sarah entirely at your service. Miss gives very little work to a maid herself, so Sarah has plenty of leisure time on her hands, and you’ll find her a very respectable young woman.”

I told her that I could do all I wanted for myself; but before she left me I could not resist asking her one question about the mysterious invalid.

“Are Mr. William’s rooms at this end of the house?” I asked.

The woman looked at me with an almost scared expression, and was silent for a moment.

“Has Mr. Laurence been saying anything to you about Mr. William?” she said, rather anxiously as I thought.

“Mr. Laurence and his sister Miss Lucy were both talking of him just now.”

“O, indeed, miss,” answered the woman with an air of relief; “the poor gentleman’s rooms are at the other end of the gallery, miss.”

“Has he lived here long?” I asked.

“Nigh upon twenty years, miss — above twenty years, I’m thinking.”

“I suppose he is distantly related to the family.”

“Yes, miss.”

“And quite dependent on Mr. Wendale?”

“Yes, miss.”

“It is very good of your master to have supported him for so many years, and to keep him in such comfort.”

“My master is a very good man, miss.”

The woman seemed determined to give me as little information as possible; but I could not resist one more question.

“How is it that in all these years Mr. Laurence has never seen this invalid relation?” I asked.

It seemed that this question, of all others, was the most embarrassing to the housekeeper. She turned first red and then pale, and said, in a very confused manner, “The poor gentleman never leaves his room, miss; and Mr. Laurence has such high spirits, bless his dear heart, and has such a noisy, rackety way with him, that he’s no fit company for an invalid.”

It was evidently useless trying for further information, so I abandoned the attempt, and bidding the housekeeper good afternoon, began to dress my hair before the massive oakframed looking-glass.

“The truth of the matter is,” I said to myself, “that after all there is nothing more to be said about it. I have tried to create a mystery out of the simplest possible family arrangement. Mr. Wendale has a bedridden relative, too poor and too helpless to support himself. What more natural than that he should give him house-room in this dreary old mansion, where there seems space enough to lodge a regiment?”

I found the family assembled in the drawing-room. Mr. Wendale was the wreck of a very handsome man. He must in early life have resembled Laurence; but, as my lover had said, it seemed indeed as if he and the house and grounds of Fernwood had fallen into decay together. But notwithstanding his weak state of health, he gave us a warm welcome, and did the honours of his hospitable dinner-table with the easy grace of a gentleman.

After dinner, my aunt and Lady Adela sat at one of the windows talking; while Laurence, Lucy, and I loitered upon a long stone terrace outside the drawing-room, watching the last low crimson streak of the August sunset fade behind the black trunks of the trees, and melt away into faint red splashes upon the water-pools amongst the brushwood. We were very happy together; Laurence and I talking of a hundred different subjects — telling Lucy our London adventures, describing our fashionable friends, our drives and rides, fetes, balls, and dinners; she, with a grave smile upon her lips, listening to us with almost maternal patience.

“I must take you over the old house to-morrow, Isabel,” Laurence said in the course of the evening. “I suppose Lucy did not tell you that she had put you into the haunted room?”

“No, indeed!”

“You must not listen to this silly boy, my dear Isabel,” said Miss Wendale. “Of course, like all other old houses, Fernwood can boast its ghost-story; but since no one in my father’s lifetime has ever seen the phantom, you may imagine that it is not a very formidable one.”

“But you own there is a ghost!” I exclaimed eagerly. “Pray tell me the story.”

“I’ll tell you, Bella,” answered Laurence, “and then you’ll know what sort of a visitor to expect when the bells of Fernwood church, hidden away behind the elms yonder, tremble on the stroke of midnight. A certain Sir Humphrey Wendale, who lived in the time of Henry the Eighth, was wronged by his wife, a very beautiful woman. Had he acted according to the ordinary fashion of the time, he would have murdered the lady and his rival; but our ancestor was of a more original turn of mind, and he hit upon an original plan of vengeance. He turned every servant out of Fernwood House; and one morning, when the unhappy lady was sleeping, he locked every door of the mansion, secured every outlet and inlet, and rode away merrily in the summer sunshine, leaving his wife to die of hunger. Fernwood is lonely enough even now, Heaven knows! but it was lonelier in those distant days. A passing traveller may now and then have glanced upward at the smokeless chimneys, dimly visible across the trees, as he rode under the park-palings; but none ever dreamed that the deserted mansion had one luckless tenant. Fifteen months afterwards, when Sir Humphrey rode home from foreign travel, he had some difficulty in forcing the door of the chamber in which you are to sleep: the withered and skeleton form of his dead wife had fallen across the threshold.”

“What a horrible story!” I exclaimed with a shiver.

“It is only a legend, dear Isabel,” said Lucy; “like all tradition, exaggerated and distorted into due proportions of poetic horror. Pray do not suffer your mind to dwell upon such a fable.”

“Indeed I hope it is not true,” I answered. “How fond people are of linking mysteries and horrors such as this with the history of an old family! And yet we never fall across any such family mystery in our own days.”

I slept soundly that night at Fernwood, undisturbed by the attenuated shadow of Sibyl Wendale, Sir Humphrey’s unhappy wife. The bright sunshine was reflected in the oak-panels of my room, and the larks were singing aloft in a cloudless blue sky, when I awoke. I found my aunt quite reconciled to her visit.

“Lady Adela is a very agreeable woman,” she said; “quiet, perhaps, to a fault, but with that high-bred tone which is always charming. Lucy Wendale seems a dear good girl, though evidently a confirmed old maid. You will find her of inestimable use when you are married — that is to say, if you ever have to manage this great rambling place, which will of course fall to your lot in the event of poor Mr. Wendale’s death.”

As for myself, I was as happy at Fernwood as the August days were long. Lucy Wendale rode remarkably well. It was the only amusement for which she cared; and she and her horses were on terms of the most devoted attachment. Laurence, his sister, and I were therefore constantly out together, riding amongst the hills about Fernwood, and exploring the country for twenty miles round.

Indoors, Lucy left us very much to ourselves. She was the ruling spirit of the house, and but for her everything must have fallen utterly to decay. Lady Adela read novels, or made a feeble attempt at amusing my aunt with her conversation.

Mr. Wendale kept his room until dinner; while Laurence and I played, sang, sketched, and rattled the billiard-balls over the green cloth whenever bad weather drove us to indoor amusements.

One day, while sketching the castellated façade of the old mansion, I noticed a peculiar circumstance connected with the suite of rooms occupied by the invalid, Mr. William. These rooms were at the extreme left angle of the building, and were lighted by a range of six windows. I was surprised by observing that every one of these windows was of ground glass. I asked Laurence the reason of this.

“Why, I believe the glare of light was too much for Mr. William,” he answered; “so my father, who is the kindest creature in Christendom, had the windows made opaque, as you see them now.”

“Has the alteration been long made?”

“It was made when I was about six years old; I have rather a vague recollection of the event, and I should not perhaps remember it but for one circumstance. I was riding about down here one morning on my Shetland pony, when my attention was attracted by a child who was looking through one of those windows. I was not near enough to see his face, but I fancy he must have been about my own age. He beckoned to me, and I was riding across the grass to respond to his invitation, when my sister Lucy appeared at the window and snatched the child away. I suppose he was someone belonging to the female attendant upon Mr. William, and had strayed unnoticed into the invalid’s rooms. I never saw him again; and the next day a glazier came over from York, and made the alteration in the windows.”

“But Mr. William must have air; I suppose the windows are sometimes opened,” I said.

“Never; they are each ventilated by a single pane, which, if you observe, is open now.”

“I cannot help pitying this poor man,” I said, after a pause, “shut out almost from the light of heaven by his infirmities, and deprived of all society.”

“Not entirely so,” answered Laurence. “No one knows how many stolen hours my sister Lucy devotes to her poor invalid.”

“Perhaps he is a very studious man, and finds his consolation in literary or scientific pursuits,” I said; “does he read very much?”

“I think not. I never heard of his having any books got for him.”

“But one thing has puzzled me, Laurence,” I continued. “Lucy spoke of him the other day as a young man, and yet Mrs. Porson, your housekeeper, told me he had lived at Fernwood for upwards of twenty years.”

“As for that,” answered Laurence carelessly, Lucy no doubt remembers him as a young man upon his first arrival here, and continues to call him so from mere force of habit. But, pray, my little inquisitive Bella, do not rack your brains about this poor relation of ours. To tell the truth, I have become so used to his unseen presence in the house, that I have ceased to think of him at all. I meet a grim wotnan, dressed in black merino, coming out of the green-baize door, and I know that she is Mr. William’s nurse; or I see a solemnfaced man, and I am equally assured that he is Mr. William’s servant, James Beck, who has grown gray in his office; I encounter the doctor riding away from Fernwood on his brown cob, and I feel convinced that he has just looked in to see how Mr. William is going on; if I miss my sister for an hour in the twilight, I know that she is in the west wing talking to Mr. William; but as nobody ever calls upon me to do anything for the poor man, I think no more of the matter.”

I felt these words almost a reproof to what might have appeared idle, or even impertinent, curiosity on my part. And yet the careless indifference of Laurence’s manner seemed to jar upon my senses. Could it be that this glad and highhearted being, whom I so tenderly loved, was selfish — heedless of the sufferings of others? No, it was surely not this that prompted his thoughtless words. It is a positive impossibility for one whose whole nature is life and motion, animation and vigour, to comprehend for one brief moment the horror of the invalid’s darkened rooms and solitary days.

I had been nearly a month at Fernwood, when, for the first time daring our visit, Laurence left us. One of his old schoolfellows, a lieutenant in the army, was quartered with his regiment at York, and Laurence had promised to dine with the mess. Though I had been most earnest in requesting him to accept this invitation, I could not help feeling dull and dispirited as I watched him drive away down the avenue, and felt that for the first time we were to spend the long autumn evening without him. Do what I would, the time hung heavily on my hands. The September sunset was beautiful, and Lucy and I walked up and down the terrace after dinner, while Mr. Wendale slept in his easy-chair, and my aunt and Lady Adela exchanged drowsy monosyllabic sentences on a couch near the fire, which was always lighted in the evening.

It was in vain that I tried to listen to Lucy’s conversation. My thoughts wandered in spite of myself, — sometimes to Laurence in the brilliantly-lighted mess-room, enlivening a circle of blasé officers with his boisterous gaiety; sometimes, as if in contrast to this, to the dark west rooms in which the invalid counted the long hours; sometimes to that dim future in whose shadowy years death was to claim our weary host, and Laurence and I were to be master and mistress at Fernwood. I had often tried to picture the place as it would be when it fell into Laurence’s hands, and architects and landscape-gardeners came to work their wondrous transformations; but, do what I would, I could never imagine it otherwise than as it was, — with straggling ivy hanging forlornly about the moss-stained walls, and solitary pools of stagnant water hiding amongst the tangled brushwood.

Laurence and I were to be married in the following spring. He would come of age in February, and I should be twenty in March, — only a year and a month between our ages, and both a great deal too young to marry, my aunt said. After tea Lucy and I sang and played. Dreary music it seemed to me that night. I thought my voice and the piano were both out of tune, and I left Lucy very rudely in the middle of our favourite duet. I took up twenty books from the crowded drawing-room table, only to throw them wearily down again. Never had Lady Adela’s novels seemed so stupid as when I looked into them that night; never had my aunt’s conversation sounded so tiresome. I looked from my watch to the old-fashioned timepiece upon the chimney half a dozen times, to find at last that it was scarcely ten o’clock. Laurence had promised to be home by eleven, and had begged Lucy and me to sit up for him.

Eleven struck at last, but Laurence had not kept his promise. My aunt and Lady Adela rose to light their candles. Mr. Wendale always retired a little after nine. I pleaded for half an hour longer, and Lucy was too kind not to comply readily.

“Isabel is right,” she said; “Laurence is a spoilt boy, you know, mamma, and will feel himself very much ill-used if he finds no one up to hear his description of the mess-dinner.”

“Only half an hour, then, mind, young ladies,” said my aunt. “I cannot allow you to spoil your complexions on account of dissipated people who drive ten miles to a military dinner. One half hour; not a moment more, or I shall come down again to scold you both.”

We promised obedience, and my aunt left us. Lucy and I seated ourselves on each side of the low fire, which had burned dull and hollow. I was too much dispirited to talk, and I sat listening to the ticking of the clock, and the occasional falling of a cinder in the bright steel fender. Then that thought came to me which comes to all watchers: What if anything had happened to Laurence? I went to one of the windows, and pulled back the heavy shutters. It was a lovely night; clear, though not moonlight, and myriads of stars gleamed in the cloudless sky. I stood at the window for some time, listening for the wheels and watching for the lamps of the phaeton.

I too was a spoilt child; life had for me been bright and smooth, and the least thought of grief or danger to those I loved filled me with a wild panic. I turned suddenly round to Lucy, and cried out, “Lucy, Lucy, I am getting frightened! Suppose anything should have happened to Laurence; those horses are wild and unmanageable sometimes. If he had taken a few glasses of wine — if he trusted the groom to drive — if—”

She came over to me, and took me in her arms as if I had been indeed a little child.

“My darling,” she said, “my darling Isabel, you must not distress yourself by such fancies as these. He is only half an hour later than he said; and as for danger, dearest, he is beneath the shelter of Providence, without whose safeguard those we love are never secure even for a moment.”

Her quiet manner calmed my agitation. I left the window, and returned shivering to the expiring fire.

“It is nearly three-quarters of an hour now, Bella dear,” she said presently; “we must keep our promise; and as for Laurence, you will hear the phaeton drive in before you go to sleep, I daresay.”

“I shall not go to sleep until I do hear it,” I answered, as I took my candle and bade her good-night.

I could not help listening for the welcome sound of the carriage-wheels as I crossed the hall and went upstairs. I stopped in the corridor to look into my aunt’s room; but she was fast asleep, and I closed the door as softly as I had opened it. It was as I left this room that, glancing down the corridor, I was surprised to see that there was a light in my own bed-chamber. I was prepared to find a fire there, but the light shining through the half-open door was something brighter than the red glow of a fire. I had joined Laurence in laughing at the ghost-story; but my first thought on seeing this light was of the shadow of the wretched Lady Sibyl. What if I found her crouching over my hearth!

I was half inclined to go back to my aunt’s room, awaken her, and tell her my fears; but one moment’s reflection made me ashamed of my cowardice. I went on, and pushed open the door of my room: there was no pale phantom shivering over the open hearth. There was an old-fashioned silver candlestick upon the table, and Laurence, my lover, was seated by the blazing fire; not dressed in the evening costume he had worn for the dinner-party, but wrapped in a loose gray woollen dressing-gown, and wearing a black-velvet smoking cap upon his chestnut hair.

Without stopping to think of the strangeness of his appearance in my room; without wondering at the fact of his having entered the house unknown either to Lucy or myself; without one thought but joy and relief of mind in seeing him once more, — I ran forward to him, crying out, “Laurence, Laurence, I am so glad you have come back!”

He — Laurence, my lover, as I thought — the man, the horrible shadow — rose from his chair, snatched up some papers that lay loosely on the table by his side, crumpled them into a ball with one fierce gesture of his strong hand, and flung them at my feet; then, with a harsh dissonant laugh that seemed a mocking echo of the joyous music I loved so well, he stalked out of the door opening on the gallery. I tried to scream, but my dry lips and throat could form no sound. The oak-panelling of the room spun round, the walls and ceiling contracted, as if they had been crushing in upon me to destroy me. I fell heavily to the floor; but as I fell I heard the phaeton-wheels upon the carriage-drive below, and Laurence Wendale’s voice calling to the servants.

I can remember little more that happened upon that horrible night. I have a vague recollection of opening my eyes upon a million dazzling lights, which slowly resolved themselves into the one candle held in Lucy Wendale’s hand, as she stood beside the bed upon which I was lying. My aunt, wrapped in her dressing-gown, sat by my pillow. My face and hair were dripping with the vinegar-and-water they had thrown over me, and I could hear Laurence, in the corridor outside my bedroom door, asking again and again, “Is she better? Is she quite herself again?”

But of all this I was only dimly conscious; a load of iron seemed pressing upon my forehead, and icy hands seemed riveted upon the back of my head, holding it tightly to the pillow on which it lay. I could no more have lifted it than I could have lifted a ton weight. I could only lie staring with stupid dull eyes at Lucy’s pale face, silently wishing that she and my aunt would go, and leave me to myself.

I suppose I was feverish and a little light-headed all that night, acting over and over again the brief scene of my meeting with the weird shadow of my lover. All the stories I had laughed at might be true, then. I had seen the phantom of the man I loved, the horrible duplicate image of that familiar figure, shaped perhaps out of impalpable air, but as terribly distinct to the eye as if it had been a form of flesh and blood.

Lucy was sitting by my bedside when I awoke from a short sleep which had succeeded the long night of fever. How intensely refreshing that brief but deep slumber was to me! How delicious the gradual fading-out of the sense of horror and bewilderment, with all the hideous confusions of delirium, into the blank tranquillity of dreamless sleep! When I awoke my head was still painful, and my frame as feeble as if I had lain for a week on a sick bed; but my brain was cleared, and I was able to think quietly of what had happened.

“Lucy,” I said, “you do not know what frightened me, or why I fainted.”

“No, dearest, not exactly.”

“But you can know nothing of it, Lucy. You were not with me when I came into this room last night. You did not see—”

I paused, unable to finish my sentence.

“Did not see whom — or what, dear Isabel?”

“The shadow of your brother Laurence.”

My whole frame trembled with the recollection of my terror of the night before, as I said this; yet I was able to observe Lucy’s face, and I saw that its natural hue had faded to an ashen pallor.

“The shadow, Isabel!” she faltered; not as if in any surprise at my words, but rather as if she merely spoke because she felt obliged to make some reply to me.

“Yes, Lucy,” I said, raising myself upon the pillow, and grasping her wrist, “the shadow of your brother Laurence. The living, breathing, moving image of your brother, with every lineament and every shade of colouring reflected in the phantom face as they would be reflected in a mirror. Not shadowy, transparent, or vanishing, but as distinct as you are to me at this very moment. Good heavens! Lucy, I give you my solemn word that I heard the phantom footsteps along that gallery as distinctly as I have ever heard the steps of Laurence himself; the firm heavy tread of a strong man.” Lucy Wendale sat for some time perfectly silent, looking straight before her, — not at me, but out at the half-open window, round which the ivy-leaves were fluttering, to the dim moorland melting into purple distance above the tree-tops in the park. Her profile was turned towards me; but I could see by her firmly-compressed lips and fixed eyes that she was thinking deeply.

Presently she said, slowly and deliberately, without once looking at me as she spoke, “You must be fully aware, my dearest Isabel, that these delusions are of common occurrence with people of an extremely sensitive temperament. You may be one of these delicately-organised persons; you had thrown yourself last night into a very nervous and hysterical state in your morbid anxiety about Laurence. With your whole mind full of his image, and tormented by all kinds of shadowy terrors about danger to him, what more likely than that you should conjure up an object such as that which you fancy you saw last night?”

But so palpable, Lucy, so distinct!”

“It would be as easy for the brain to shape a distinct as an indistinct form. Grant the possibility of optical delusion, a fact established by a host of witnesses, — and you cannot limit the character of the delusion. But I must get our doctor, Mr. Arden, to talk to you about this. He is something of a metaphysician as well as a medical man, and will be able to cure your mental ills and regulate this feverish pulse of yours at the same time. Laurence has ridden over to York to fetch him, and I daresay they will both be here directly.”

“Lucy, remember you must never tell Laurence the cause of my last night’s fainting-fit.”

“I never shall, dear. I was about to make the very same request to you. It is much better that he should not know it.”

“Much better; for O, Lucy, do you remember that in all ghost-stories the appearance of the shadow, or double, of a living person is a presage of death to that person? The thought of this brings back all my terror. My Laurence, my darling, if anything should happen to him!”

“Come, Bella, Mr. Arden must talk to you. In the mean time, here comes Mrs. Porson with your breakfast. While you are taking it, I will go to the library, and look for Sir Walter Scott’s Demonology. You will find several instances in that book of the optical delusions I have spoken of.”

The housekeeper came bustling into the room with a breakfast-tray, which she placed on a table by the bed. When she had arranged everything for my comfort, and propped me up with a luxurious pile of pillows, she turned round to speak to Lucy.

“O, Miss Lucy,” she said, “poor Beck is so awfully cut up. If you’d only just see him, and tell him—”

Lucy silenced her with one look; a brief but all-expressive glance of warning and reproval. I could not help wondering what possible reason there could be for making a mystery of some little trouble of James Beck’s.

Mr. Arden, the York surgeon, was the most delightful of men. He came with Lucy into my room, and laughed and chatted me out of my low spirits before he had been with me a quarter of an hour. He talked so much of hysteria, optical delusions, false impressions of outward objects, abnormal conditions of the organ of sight, and other semi-mental, semiphysical infirmities, that he fairly bewildered me into agreeing with and believing all he said.

“I hear you are a most accomplished horsewoman,” Miss Morley,” he said, as he rose to leave us; “and as the day promises to be fine I most strongly recommend a canter across the moors, with Mr. Wendale as your cavalier. Go to sleep between this and luncheon; rise in time to eat a mutton-chop and drink a glass of bitter ale; ride for two hours in the sunniest part of the afternoon; take a light dinner, and go to bed early; and I will answer for your seeing no more of the ghost. You have no idea how much indigestion has to do with these things. I daresay if I were to see your bill of fare for yesterday I should discover that Lady Adela’s cook is responsible for the phantom, and that he made his first appearance among the entrées. Who can wonder that the Germans are a ghost-seeing people, when it is remembered that they eat raspberry-jam with roast veal?”

I followed the doctor’s advice to the letter; and at three o’clock in the afternoon Laurence and I were galloping across the moorland, tinged with a yellow hazy light in the September sunshine. Like most impressionable people, I soon recovered from my nervous shock; and by the time I sprang from the saddle before the wide stone portico at Fernwood I had almost forgotten my terrors of the previous night.

A fortnight after this my aunt and I left Yorkshire for Brighton, whither Laurence speedily followed us. Before leaving I did all in my power to induce Lucy to accompany us, but in vain. She thanked my aunt for her cordial invitation, but declared that she could not leave Fernwood. We departed, therefore, without having won her, as I had hoped to have done, from the monotony of her solitary life; and without having seen Mr. Wendale’s invalid dependent, the mysterious occupant of the west wing.

Early in November Laurence was summoned from Brighton by the arrival of a black-bordered letter, written by Lucy, and telling him of his father’s death. Mr. Wendale had been found by his servant, seated in an easy-chair in his study, with his head lying back upon the cushions, and an open book on the carpet at his feet, dead. He had long suffered from disease of the heart.

My lover wrote me long letters from Yorkshire, telling me how his mother and sister bore the blow which had fallen upon them so suddenly. It was a quiet and subdued sorrow rather than any tempestuous grief, which reigned in the narrow circle at Fernwood. Mr. Wendale had been an invalid for many years, giving very little of his society to his wife and daughter. His death, therefore, though sudden, had not been unexpected, nor did his loss leave any great blank in that quiet home. Laurence spent Christmas at Fernwood, but returned to us for the new year; and it was then settled that we should go down to Yorkshire early in February, in order to superintend the restoration and alteration of the old place.

All was arranged for our journey, when, on the very day on which we were to start, Laurence came to Onslow-square with a letter from his mother, which he had only just received. Lady Adela wrote a few hurried lines to beg us to delay our visit for some days, as they had decided on removing Mr. William, before the alterations were commenced, to a cottage which was being prepared for him near York. His patron’s death did not leave the invalid dependent on the bounty of Laurence or Lady Adela. Mr. Wendale had bequeathed a small estate, worth three hundred a-year, in trust for the sole use and benefit of this Mr. William Wendale.

Neither Laurence nor I understood why the money should have been left in trust rather than unconditionally to the man himself. But neither he nor I felt deeply interested in the subject; and Laurence was far too careless of business matters to pry into the details of his succession. He knew himself to be the owner of Fernwood and of a handsome income, and that was all he cared to know.

“I will not hear of this visit being delayed an hour,” Laurence said impatiently, as he thrust Lady Adela’s crumpled letter into his pocket. “My poor foolish mother and sister are really too absurd about this first or fifth cousin of ours, William Wendale. Let him leave Fernwood, or let him stay at Fernwood, just as he or his nurse or his medical man may please; but I certainly shall not allow his arrangements to interfere with ours. So, ladies, I shall be perfectly ready to escort you by the eleven-o’clock express.”

Mrs. Trevor remonstrated, declaring that she would rather delay our visit according to Lady Adela’s wish; but my impetuous Laurence would not hear a word, and under a black and moonless February sky we drove up the avenue at Fernwood.

We met Mr. Arden in the hall as we entered. There seemed something ominous in receiving our first greeting from the family doctor; and Laurence was for a moment alarmed by his presence.

“My mother — Lucy!” he said anxiously; “they are well, I hope?”

“Perfectly well. I have not been attending them; I have just come from Mr. William.”

“Is he worse?”

“I fear he is rather worse than usual.”

Our welcome was scarcely a cordial one, for both Lucy and Lady Adela were evidently embarrassed by our unexpected arrival. Their black dresses half-covered with crape, the mourning liveries of the servants, the vacant seat of the master, the dismal winter weather, and ceaseless beating of the rain upon the window-panes, gave a more than usually dreary aspect to the place, and seemed to chill us to the very soul.

Those who at any period of their lives have suffered some terrible and crushing affliction, some never-to-be-forgotten trouble, for which even the hand of Time has no lessening influence, which increases rather than diminishes as the slow course of a hopeless life carries us farther from it, so that as we look back we do not ask ourselves why the trial seemed so bitter, but wonder rather how we endured even as we did, — those only who have sunk under such a grief as this can know how difficult it is to dissociate the period preceding the anguish from the hour in which it came. I say this lest I should be influenced by after-feelings when I describe the dismal shadows that seemed to brood over the hearth round which Lady Adela, my aunt, Laurence, and myself gathered upon the night of our return to Fernwood.

Lucy had left us; and when her brother inquired about her, Lady Adela said she was with Mr. William.

As usual, Laurence chafed at the answer. It was hard, he said, that his sister should have to act as sick-nurse to this man.

“James Beck has gone to York to prepare for William,” answered Lady Adela, “and the poor boy has no one with him but his nurse.”

The poor boy! I wondered why it was that Lady Adela and her stepdaughter always alluded to Mr. William as a young man.

Early the next morning, Laurence insisted upon our accompanying him on a circuit of the house, to discuss the intended alterations. I have already described the gallery, running the whole length of the building, at one end of which was situated the suite of rooms occupied by Mr. William, and at the other extremity those devoted to Aunt Trevor and myself. Lady Adela’s apartments were nearest to those of the invalid, Lucy’s next, then the billiard-room, and opening out of that the bed-and dressing-room occupied by Laurence. On the other side of the gallery were servants’ and visitors’ rooms, and a pretty boudoir sacred to Lady Adela.

Laurence was in very high spirits, planning alterations here and renovations there — bay-windows to be thrown out in one direction, and folding-doors knocked through in another — till we laughed heartily at him on finding that the pencil-memorandum he was preparing for the architect resolved itself into an order for knocking down the old house and building a new one. We had explored every nook and corner in the place, with the one exception of those mysterious apartments in the left wing. Laurence Wendale paused before the green-baize door, but after a moment’s hesitation tapped for admittance.

“I have never seen Mr. William, and it is rather awkward to have to ask to look at his rooms while he is in them; but the necessity of the case will be my excuse for intruding on him. The architect will be here to-morrow, and I want to have all my plans ready to submit to him.”

The baize-door was opened by Lucy Wendale; she started at seeing us.

“What do you want, Laurence?” she said.

“To see Mr. William’s rooms. I shall not disturb him, if he will kindly allow me to glance round the apartments.”

I could see that there was an inner half-glass door behind that at which Lucy was standing.

“You cannot possibly see the rooms to-day, Laurence,” she said hurriedly. “Mr. William leaves early to-morrow morning.”

She came out into the gallery, closing the baize-door behind her; but as the shutting of the door reverberated through the gallery, I heard another sound that turned my blood to ice, and made me cling convulsively to Laurence’s arm.

The laugh, the same dissonant laugh that I had heard from the spectral lips of my lover’s shadow!

“Lucy,” I said, “did you hear that?”

“What?”

“The laugh, the laugh I heard the night that—”

Laurence had thrown his arm round me, alarmed by my terror. His sister was standing a little way behind him; she put her finger to her lips, looking at me significantly.

“You must be mistaken, Isabel,” she said quietly.

There was some mystery, then, connected with this Mr. William — a mystery which for some especial reason was to be concealed from Laurence.

Half an hour after this, Lucy Wendale came to me as I was searching for a book in the library.

“Isabel,” she said, “I wish to say a few words to you.”

“Yes, dear Lucy.”

“You are to be my sister, and I have perhaps done wrong in concealing from you the one unhappy secret which has clouded the lives of my poor father, my stepmother, and myself. But long ago, when Laurence was a child, it was deemed expedient that the grief which was so heavy a load for us should, if possible, be spared to him. My father was so passionately devoted to his handsome light-hearted boy that he shrank day by day from the thought of revealing to him the afflicting secret which was such a source of grief to himself. We found that, by constant care and watchfulness, it was possible to conceal all from Laurence, and up to this hour we have done so. But it is perhaps better that you should know all; for you will be able to aid us in keeping the knowledge from Lawrence; or, if absolutely necessary, you may by and by break it to him gently, and reconcile him to an irremediable affliction.”

“But this secret — this affliction — it concerns your invalid relation, Mr. William?”

“It does, Isabel.”

I know that the words which were to reveal all were trembling upon her lips, — that in one brief moment she would have spoken, and I should have known all. I should have known — in time; but before she could utter a syllable the door was opened by one of the women-servants.

“O miss, if you please,” she said, “Mrs. Peters says would you step upstairs this minute?”

Mrs. Peters was the nurse who attended on Mr. William. Lucy pressed my hand. “To-morrow, dearest, to-morrow I will tell you all.”

She hurried from the room, and I sank into a chair by the fire, with my book lying open in my lap, unable to read a line, unable to think, except upon one subject — the secret which I was so soon to learn. If she had but spoken then! A few words more, and what unutterable misery might have been averted!

I was aroused from my reverie by Laurence, who came to challenge me to a game at billiards. On my pleading fatigue as an excuse for refusing, he seated himself on a stool at my feet, offering to read aloud to me.

“What shall it be, Bella? — Paradise Lost, De Quincey’s Essays, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson—”

“Tennyson by all means! The dreary rain-blotted sky outside those windows, and the bleak moorland in the distance, are perfectly Tennysonian. Read Locksley Hall.”

His deep melodious voice rolled out the swelling verses; but I heard the sound without its meaning. I could only think of the mystery which had been kept so long a secret from my lover. When he had finished the poem he threw aside his book, and sat looking earnestly at me.

“My solemn Bella,” he said, “what on earth are you thinking about?”

The broad glare of the blaze from an enormous sea-coal fire was full upon his handsome face. I tried to rouse myself, and, laying my hands upon his forehead, pushed back his curling chestnut hair. As I did so I for the first time perceived a cicatrice across his left temple — a deep gash, as if from the cut of a knife, but a wound of remote date.

“Why, Laurence,” I said, “you tell me you were never thrown, and yet you have a scar here that looks like the evidence of some desperate fall. Did you get it in hunting?”

“No, my inquisitive Bella! No horse is to blame for that personal embellishment. I believe it was done when I was a child of two or three years old; but I have no positive recollection of the event, though I have a vague remembrance of wearing a sticking-plaster bandage across my forehead, and being unconscionably petted by Lucy and my mother.”

“But it looks like a scar from a cut — from the cut of a knife.”

“I must have fallen upon some sharp instrument, — the edge of one of the stone steps, perhaps, or a metal scraper.”

“My poor Laurence, the blow might have killed you!”

He looked grave.

“Do you know, Bella,” he said, “how difficult it is to dissociate the vague recollections of the actual events of our childhood from childish dreams that are scarcely more vague? Sometimes I have a strange fancy that I can remember getting this cut, and that it was caused by a knife thrown at me by another child.”

“Another child! what child?”

“A boy of my own age and size.”

“Was he your playfellow?”

“I can’t tell; I can remember nothing but the circumstance of his throwing the knife at me, and the sensation of the hot blood streaming into my eyes and blinding me.”

“Can you remember where it occurred?”

“Yes, in the gallery upstairs.”

We lunched at two. After luncheon Laurence went to his own room to write some letters; Lady Adela and my aunt read and worked in the drawing-room, while I sat at the piano, rambling through some sonatas of Beethoven.

We were occupied in this manner when Lucy came into the room, dressed for walking.

“I have ordered the carriage, mamma,” she said. “I am going over to York to see that Beck has everything prepared. I shall be back to dinner.”

Lady Adela seemed to grow more helpless every day, — every day to rely more and more on her stepdaughter.

“You are sure to do all for the best, Lucy,” she said. “Take plenty of wraps, for it is bitterly cold.”

“Shall I go with you, Lucy?” I asked.

“You! O, on no account, dear Isabel. What would Laurence say to me if I carried you off for a whole afternoon?”

She hurried from the room, and in two minutes the lumbering close carriage drove away from the portico. My motive in asking to accompany her was a selfish one: I thought it possible she might resume the morning’s interrupted conversation during our drive.

If I had but gone with her!

It is so difficult to reconcile oneself to the irrevocable decrees of Providence; it is so difficult to bow the head in meek submission to the awful fiat; so difficult not to look back to the careless hours which preceded the falling of the blow, and calculate how it might have been averted.

The February twilight was closing in. My aunt and Lady Adela had fallen asleep by the fire. I stole softly out of the room to fetch a book which I had left upstairs. There was more light in the hall and on the staircase than in the drawing-room; but the long gallery was growing dark, the dusky shadows gathering about the faded portraits of my lover’s ancestry. I stopped at the top of the staircase, and looked for a moment towards the billiard-room. The door was open, and I could see a light streaming from Laurence’s little study. I went to my own room, contrived to find the book I wanted, and returned to the gallery. As I left my room I saw that the green-baize door at the extreme end of the gallery was wide open.

An irresistible curiosity attracted me towards those mysterious apartments. As I drew nearer to the staircase I could plainly perceive the figure of a man standing at the half-glass door within. The light of a fire shining in the room behind him threw the outline of his head and figure into sharp relief. There was no possibility of mistaking that well-known form — the broad shoulders, the massive head, and clusters of curling hair. It was Laurence Wendale looking through the glass door of the invalid’s apartments. He had penetrated those forbidden chambers, then. I thought immediately of the mystery connected with the invalid, and of Lucy’s anxiety that it should be kept from her brother, and I hurried forward towards the baize-door. As I advanced, he saw me, and rattled impatiently at the lock of the inner door. It was locked, but the key was on the outside. He did not speak, but rattled the lock incessantly, signifying by a gesture of his head that I was to open the door. I turned the key, the door opened outwards, and I was nearly knocked down by the force with which he flung it back and dashed past me.

“Laurence!” I said, “Laurence! what have you been doing here, and who locked you in?”

He did not answer me, but strode along the gallery, looking at each of the doors till he came to the only open one, that of the billiard-room, which he entered.

I was wounded by his rude manner; but I scarcely thought of that, for I was on the threshold of the apartments occupied by the mysterious invalid, and I could not resist one hurried peep into the room behind the half-glass door.

It was a roomy apartment, very plainly furnished: a large fire burned in the grate, which was closely guarded by a very high brass fender, the highest I had ever seen. There was an easy-chair close to this fender, and on the floor beside it a heap of old childish books, with glaring coloured prints, some of them torn to shreds. On the mantelpiece there was a painted wooden figure, held together by strings, such as children play with; Exactly opposite to where I stood there was another door, which was half open, and through which I saw a bedroom, furnished with two iron bedsteads, placed side by side. There were no hangings either to these bedsteads or to the windows in the sitting-room, and the latter were protected by iron bars. A horrible fear came over me. Mr. William was perhaps a madman. The seclusion, the locked doors, the guarded fireplace and windows, the dreary curtainless beds, the watchfulness of Lucy, James Beck, and the nurse, — all pointed to this conclusion.

Tenantless as the rooms looked, the maniac might be lurking in the shadow. I turned to hurry back to the gallery, and found myself face to face with Mrs. Peters, the nurse, with a small tea-tray in her hands.

“My word, miss,” she said, “how you did startle me, to be sure! What are you doing here? and why have you unlocked this door?”

“To let out Mr. Laurence.”

“Mr. Laurence I” she exclaimed, in a terrified voice.

“Yes; he was inside this door. Someone had locked him in, I suppose; and he told me to open it for him.”

“O miss, what have you done! what have you done! Today, above all things, when we’ve had such an awful time with him! What have you done!”

What had I done? I thought the woman must herself be half distraught, so unaccountable was the agitation of her manner. O merciful Heaven, the laugh! the harsh, mocking, exulting, idiotic laugh! This time it rang in loud and discordant peals to the very rafters of the old house.

“O, for pity’s sake,” I cried, clinging to the nurse, “what is it, what is it?”

She threw me off, and rushing to the balustrades at the head of the staircase, called loudly, “Andrew, Henry, bring lights!”

They came, the two men-servants, — old men, who had served in that house for thirty or forty years, — they came with candles, and followed the nurse to the billiard-room.

The door of communication between that and Laurence Wendale’s study was wide open, and on the threshold, with the light shining upon him from within the room, stood the double of my lover; the living, breathing image of my Laurence, the creature I had seen at the half-glass door, and had mistaken for Laurence himself. His face was distorted by a ghastly grin, and he was uttering some strange unintelligible sounds as we approached him, — guttural and unearthly murmurs horrible to hear. Even in that moment of bewilderment and terror I could see that the cambric about his right wrist was splashed with blood.

The nurse looked at him severely; he slunk away like a frightened child, and crept into a corner of the billiard-room, where he stood grinning and mouthing at the blood-stains upon his wrist.

We rushed into the little study. O horror of horrors! the writing-table was overturned; ink, papers, pens, all scattered and trampled on the floor; and in the midst of the confusion lay Laurence Wendale, the blood slowly ebbing away, with a dull gurgling sound, from a hideous gash in his throat.

A penknife, which belonged to Laurence’s open desk, lay amongst the trampled papers, crimsoned to the hilt.

Laurence Wendale had been murdered by his idiot twin-brother.

* * * * * * * * * * *

There was an inquest. I can recall at any hour, or at any moment, the whole agony of the scene. The dreary room, adjoining that in which the body lay; the dull February sky; the monotonous voice of the coroner and the medical men; and myself, or some wretched, shuddering, white-lipped creature that I could scarcely believe to be myself, giving evidence. Lady Adela was reproved for having kept her idiot son at Fernwood without the knowledge of the murdered man; but every effort was made to hush-up the terrible story. William Wendale was tried at York, and transferred to the county lunatic asylum, there to be detained during her Majesty’s pleasure. His unhappy brother was quietly buried in the Wendale vault, the chief mausoleum in a damp moss-grown church close to the gates of Fernwood.

It is upwards of ten years since all this happened; but the horror of that February twilight is as fresh in my mind to-day as it was when I lay stricken — not senseless, but stupefied with anguish — on a sofa in the drawing-room at Fernwood, listening to the wailing of the wretched mother and sister.

The misery of that time changed me at once from a young woman to an old one; not by any sudden blanching of my dark hair, but by the blotting-out of every girlish feeling and of every womanly hope. This change in my own nature has drawn Lucy Wendale and me together with a link far stronger than any common sisterhood. Lady Adela died two years after the murder of her son. The Fernwood property has passed into the hands of the heir-at-law.

Lucy lives with me at the Isle of Wight. She is my protectress, my elder sister, without whom I should be lost; for I am but a poor helpless creature.

It was months after the quiet funeral in Fernwood church before Lucy spoke to me of the wretched being who had been the author of so much misery.

“The idiotcy of my unhappy brother,” she said, “was caused by a fall from his nurse’s arms, which resulted in a fatal injury to the brain. The two children were infants at the time of the accident, and so much alike that we could only distinguish Laurence from William by the different colour of the ribbons with which the nurse tied the sleeves of the children’s white frocks. My poor father suffered bitterly from his son’s affliction; sometimes cherishing hope even in the face of the verdict which medical science pronounced upon the poor child’s case, sometimes succumbing to utter despair. It was the intense misery which he himself endured that made him resolve on the course which ultimately led to so fatal a catastrophe. He determined on concealing William’s affliction from his twin-brother. At a very early age the idiot child was removed to the apartments in which he lived until the day of his brother’s murder. James Beck and the nurse, both experienced in the treatment of mental affliction, were engaged to attend him; and indeed the strictest precaution seemed necessary, as, on the only occasion of the two children meeting, William evinced a determined animosity to his brother, and inflicted a blow with a knife the traces of which Laurence carried to his grave. The doctors attributed this violent hatred to some morbid feeling respecting the likeness between the two boys. William flew at his brother as some wild animal springs upon its reflection in a glass. With me, in his most violent fit, he was comparatively tractable; but the strictest surveillance was always necessary; and the fatal deed which the wretched, but irresponsible creature at last committed might never have been done but for the imprudent absence of James Beck and myself.”

 

Samuel Lowgood’s Revenge

From the first to the last we were rivals and enemies. Perhaps it was on my part that the hatred, which eventually became so terrible a passion between us, first arose. Perhaps it was, perhaps it was! At any rate, he always said that it was so. I am an old man, and many memories of the past have lost their vivid colouring; but that portion of my life which relates to him is as fresh in my mind to-night as ever it was fifty years ago, when his gracious Majesty George the Second was king, and Christopher Weldon and I were junior clerks together in the great house of Tyndale and Tyndale, shipowners, Dockside, Willborough.

He was very handsome. It was hard for a pale-faced, sallow-complexioned, hollow-eyed, insignificant lad as I was to sit at the same desk with Christopher Weldon, and guess the comparisons that every stranger entering the counting-house must involuntarily make as he looked at us — if he looked at us, that is to say; and it was difficult not to look at Christopher. Good heavens! I can see him now, seated at the worn, old, battered, ink-stained desk, with the July sunlight streaming down through the dingy office-windows upon his pale golden curls; his bright blue eyes looking out through the smoky panes at the forests of masts, dangling ropes, and grimy sails in the dock outside; one girlish white hand carelessly thrown upon the desk before him, and the delicate fingers of the other twisted in his flowing curls. He was scarcely one-and-twenty, the spoiled pet of a widowed mother, the orphan son of a naval officer, and the idol of half the women in the seaport of Willborough. It was not so much to be wondered at, then, that he was a fop and a maccaroni, and that the pale golden curls which he brushed off his white forehead were tied on his coat-collar with a fine purple ribbon on Sundays and holidays. His cravat and ruffles were always of delicate lace, worked by his loving mother’s hands; his coats were made by a London tailor, who had once worked for Mr. George Selwyn and Lord March, and he wore small diamond shoe-buckles and a slender court-sword sometimes out of office-hours.

I, too, was an orphan; but I was doubly an orphan. My father and mother had both died in my infancy. I had been reared in a workhouse, had picked up chance waifs and strays of education from the hardest masters, and had been drafted, at the age of ten, into the offices of Tyndale and Tyndale. Errand boy, light porter, office drudge, junior clerk — one by one I had mounted the rounds in this troublesome ladder, which for me could only be begun from the very bottom; and at the age of twenty-one I found myself — where? In a business character, I was on a level with Christopher Weldon, the son of a gentleman. How often I, the pauper orphan of a bankrupt corn chandler, had to hear this phrase, — the son of a gentleman! In a business character, I say, I, Samuel Lowgood, who had worked and slaved and drudged, and been snubbed, throughout eleven long weary years — and in spite of all had become a clever accountant and a thorough arithmetician — was in the same rank as Christopher Weldon, who had been in the office exactly four weeks, just to see, as his mother said, whether it would suit him.

He was about as much good in the counting-house as a wax doll would have been, and, like a wax doll, he looked very pretty; but Messrs. Tyndale and Tyndale had known his father; and Tyndale senior knew his uncle, and Tyndale junior was acquainted with his first cousin, who lived at the court-end of London; so he was taken at once into the office as junior clerk, with every chance, as one of the seniors told me confidentially, of rising much higher, if he took care of himself.

He knew about as much arithmetic as a baby; but he was very clever with his pen in sketching pretty girls with powdered heads, flowing sacques, and pannier hoops; so he found plenty of amusement in doing this and reading Mr. Henry Fielding’s novels behind the ledger; and the head clerks left him to himself, and snubbed me for not doing his work as well as my own.

I hated him. I hated his foppish ways and his haughty manners; I hated his handsome boyish face, with its frame of golden hair, and its blue, beaming, hopeful eyes; I hated him for the sword which swung across the stiff skirts of his brocaded coat, for the money which he jingled in his waistcoat-pockets, for the two watches which he wore on high days and holidays, for his merry laugh, for his melodious voice, for his graceful walk, for his tall, slender figure, for his jovial, winning ways, which won everybody else’s friendship, — I hated him for all these; but, most of all, I hated him for his influence over Lucy Malden.

Lucy was a humble dependent upon the bounty of the house of Tyndale and Tyndale, and she had the care of the town residence belonging to the firm, a roomy old house which communicated with the offices.

People knew very little about her, except that she was the daughter of a superannuated old clerk, who had gone stone blind over the ledgers of Tyndale and Tyndale, and that she lived with her father in this dreary, old, deserted town house. Once or twice in the year the brothers would take it into their heads to give a dinner-party in this disused dwelling; and then the great oak furniture was polished, and clusters of wax-candles were lighted in the twisted silver sconces, and the dim pictures of the Tyndales dead and gone, shipowners and merchants in the days of William and Mary, were uncovered: but at other times Lucy Malden and her blind old father had the great place, with its long dark corridors and its lofty chambers, into which the light rarely penetrated, all to themselves. The house joined the offices, and the offices and the house formed three sides of a square, the dock-side forming the fourth. The counting-house in which Christopher Weldon and I sat was exactly opposite the house.

I watched him upon the morning when he first saw her — watched him without his being aware of it. It was a blazing July day; and when she had arranged her father’s room and her own, and the little sitting-room which they shared together, which formed part of a range of apartments on the second story, she came to her window, and, opening it to its widest extent, sat down to her needlework. She eked out the slender income which the firm allowed her father by the sale of her needlework, which was very beautiful. A screen of flowers in great stone jars shaded the window, and behind these she placed herself.

He saw her in a moment, and his pen fell from his listless hand.

She was not beautiful; I know that she was not beautiful. I think that many would have scarcely called her even a pretty girl; but to me, from the first to the last, she was the fairest, the dearest, and the loveliest of women, and it is so difficult to me to dispossess myself of her image, as that image shone upon me, that I doubt if I can describe her as she really was.

She was very pale. The dreary, joyless life she led in that dark old house, in the heart of a dingy seaport town, had perhaps blanched the roses in her cheeks, and dimmed the sunlight in her thoughtful brown eyes. She had very light hair — hair of the palest flaxen, perfectly straight and smooth, which she wore turned back over a roll, and fastened in one thick mass at the back of her head. Her eyes, in utter contrast to this light hair, were of the darkest brown, — so dark and deep, that the stranger always thought them black. Her features were small and delicate, her lips thin, her figure slender, and below the average height. Her dress, a dimity petticoat, with a gray stuff gown, and a white apron.

Christopher’s pen fell out of his hand, and he looked up at her window, and began to hum the air of a favourite song in the new opera about thieves and ragamuffins, which had got Mr. Gay, the poet, and a beautiful duchess, into such disgrace up in London.

He was such a conceited beau and lady-killer, that he could not rest till she had looked at the office-window by which he sat.

The song attracted her, and she lifted her eyes from her work, and looked down at him.

She started, and blushed — blushed a beautiful, rosy red, that lighted up her pale face like the reflection of a fire; and then, seeing me at my desk, nodded and smiled to me. She and I had been friends for years, and I only waited till I should rise one step higher in the office to tell her how much I loved her.

From that day, on some excuse or other, Christopher Weldon was always dangling about the house. He scraped acquaintance with her blind old father. He was a pretty musician, and he would put his flute in his pocket, after office-hours, and stroll over to the house, and sit there in the twilight playing to the father and daughter for the hour together, while I hid myself in the shadow of the counting-house doorway, and stood watching them. O, how I hated him, as I saw across the screen of plants the two fair heads side by side, and the blind old father nodding and smiling, and applauding the music! How I hated that melodious opera of Mr. Gay’s! How I hated Christopher Weldon, as he and Lucy stood on the step of the hall-door, between the tall iron extinguishers under the disused oil-lamp, wishing each other good-night! I thought that I could see the little white hand tremble when it fluttered a gentle farewell to him, as he strode away through the dusky evening.

Should I dog his steps, and when he got to a lonely place upon the narrow quay, dart suddenly upon him, and push him into the water? — push him in where the barges lay thickly clustered together, and where he must sink under their keels down into the black stream? The God of sinners knows I have asked myself this question!

For months I watched them. O, what bitter pain, what silent torture, what a long fever of anguish and despair!

How could I do him some dire injury, which should redress one atom of this mighty sum of wrong that he had done me? — fancied wrong, perhaps; for if he had not won her love, I might never have won it. But I prayed — I believe I was wicked and mad enough even to pray — for some means of doing him as deadly an injury as I thought he had done me.

He looked up at me one day, in his gay, reckless fashion, and said, suddenly pushing the ledger away from him, with a weary sigh:

“Samuel Lowgood, do you know what a tailor’s bill is?”

I cursed him in my heart for his insolence in asking me the question; but I looked down at my greasy white coat-sleeve, and said:

“I have worn this for five years, and I bought it second-hand of a dealer on the quay.”

“Happy devil!” he said, with a laugh; “if you want to see a tailor’s bill, then look at that.”

He tossed me over a long slip of paper, and I looked at the sum-total.

It seemed to me something so prodigious, that I had to look at it ever so many times before I could believe my eyes.

“Thirty-seven pounds thirteen and fourpence-halfpenny. I like the fourpence-halfpenny,” he said; “it looks honest. Samuel Lowgood, my mother’s heart would break if she saw that bill. I must pay it in a fortnight from to-day, or it will come to her ears.”

“How much have you got towards paying it?” I asked. My heart beat faster at the thought of his trouble, and my face flushed crimson; but he sat with his forehead leaning on his clasped hands, and he never looked at me.

“How much have I got towards it?” he said bitterly. “This.” He turned his waistcoat-pockets inside out, one after the other. “Never mind,” he added, in his old reckless tone, “I may be a rich man before the fortnight’s out.”

That evening he was dangling over at the house as usual, and I heard “Cease your funning” on the flute, and saw the two fair heads across the dark foliage of Lucy Malden’s little flower-garden.

I was glad of his trouble — I was glad of his trouble! It was small, indeed, compared to the sorrow and despair which I wished him; but it was trouble, and the bright, fair-haired, blue-eyed boy knew what it was to suffer.

The days passed, and the fortnight was nearly gone, but my fellow-clerk said no more about the tailor’s bill. So one day as we sat as usual at the desk — I working hard at a difficult row of figures, he chewing the end of his pen, and looking rather moodily across the courtyard, I asked him, “Well, have you got rid of your difficulty?”

“What difficulty?” he asked sharply.

“Your tailor’s bill; the thirty-seven thirteen and fourpence-halfpenny. He looked at me very much as if he would have liked to have knocked me off my high stool; but he said presently, “O yes; that’s been settled ever so long!” and he began to whistle one of his favourite songs.

“Ever so long!” His trouble lasted a very short time, I thought.

But in spite of this he was by no means himself. He sat at his desk with his head buried in his hands; he was sharp and short in his answers when anybody spoke to him, and we heard a great deal less of the BeggarsOpera and “Polly.”

All of a sudden, too, he grew very industrious, and took to writing a great deal; but he contrived to sit in such a manner that I could never find out what he was writing.

It was some private matter of his own, I felt sure. What could it be?

Love-letters, perhaps; letters to her!

A fiendish curiosity took possession of me, and I determined to fathom his secret.

I left the counting-house on some pretence; and after a short absence returned so softly that he could not hear me; and stealing behind him, lifted myself upon tiptoe, and looked over his shoulder.

He was writing over and over again, across and across, upon half a sheet of letter-paper, the signature of the firm, “Tyndale and Tyndale.”

What could it mean? Was it preoccupation? mere absence of mind? idle trifling with his pen? The fop had a little pocket mirror hanging over his desk. I looked into it, and saw his face.

I knew then what it meant. My hatred of him gave me such a hideous joy in the thought of what I had discovered that I laughed aloud. He turned round, and asked me savagely what I was doing; and as he turned he crumpled the paper in his hand, inking his pretty white fingers with the wet page.

“Spy, sneak, sycophant!” he said; “what are you crawling about here for?”

“I was only trying to startle you, Mister Weldon,” I answered. “What are you writing, that you’re so frightened of my seeing? love-letters?”

“Mind your own business and look to your own work, you pitiful spy,” he roared out, “and leave me to do mine my own way.”

“I would, if I were you. It seems such a nice way,” I answered meekly.

Two days after this, at half-past three o’clock in the afternoon, Christopher Weldon asked one of the senior clerks for a quarter of an hour’s leave of absence. He wanted to see a fellow round in the High-street, he said, and he couldn’t see him after four o’clock.

I felt my sallow face flame up into a scarlet flush as my fellow-clerk made this request. Could it be as I thought?

He had been four months in the office, and it was the end of November. The end of November, and almost dark at halfpast three o’clock.

They granted his request without the slightest hesitation. He left his desk, took his hat up, and walked slowly to the door; at the door he stopped, turned back to his desk, and throwing his hat down, leaned moodily upon his folded arms.

“I don’t know that I care much about seeing the fellow now,” he said.

“Why, Chris.,” cried one of the clerks, “what’s the matter with you, man? Are you in love or in debt, that you’re so unlike yourself?”

“Neither,” he said, with a short laugh.

“What, not in love, Chris.? How about the pretty little fair-haired girl over the way?”

“How about her?” he said savagely. “She’s a cold-hearted little coquette, and she may go to—”

I slapped the ledger on which I was at work violently on to the desk, and looked up at him.

Christopher Weldon!”

Your humble servant,” he said mockingly. “There’s a face! Have I been poaching upon your manor, Samuel?”

“If you want to see your friend before four o’clock you’d better be off, Chris.,” said the clerk.

He took his hat up once more, twirled it slowly round for a few minutes, then put it on his head, and, without saying a word to anyone, hurried out of the office and across the courtyard.

Lucy was standing at her window opposite, with her forehead leaning against the dingy framework of the panes, and I watched her start and tremble as she saw him.

“If I’m to take these accounts into the market-place I’d better take them now, hadn’t I, sir?” I asked of the senior clerk.

“You may as well.”

There was a back way through some narrow courts and squares which led from the dock-side to the High-street, in which the house Tyndale and Tyndale banked with was situated. I was hurrying off this way when I stopped, and changed my mind.

“He’ll go the back way,” I thought; “I’ll cut across the market-place by the most public road.”

In five minutes I was in the High-street. Opposite the bank there was a tobacconist’s shop, at which our clerks were accustomed to buy their pennyworths of snuff. I strolled in, and asked the girl to fill my box. I was quite an old man in most of my ways, and snuff-taking was a confirmed habit with me.

As she weighed the snuff, I stood looking through the low window at the great doors of the bank opposite.

One of the doors swung back upon its hinges. An old man, a stranger to me, came out.

Three minutes more.

“I am waiting for a friend,” I said to the girl at the counter.

Two minutes more. The doors opened again. I was right, and I was not surprised. Christopher Weldon came out of the bank, and walked quickly down the street.

It was too dark for me to see his face; but I knew the tall slim figure and the dashing walk.

“I am not surprised, I am only glad,” I said.

During my long service in the house of Tyndale and Tyndale, I had lived so hard as to have been able to save money from my scanty earnings. I had scraped together, from year to year, the sum of forty-eight pounds fifteen shillings.

“I will save a hundred,” I had said, “and then I will ask her to marry me.”

But the only dream of my life was broken, and my little hoard was useless to me now.

Useless to purchase love, perhaps; but it might yet bring me revenge.

I put every farthing I possessed into my pocket the next morning, and the first time I could find an excuse for going out hurried down to the bank.

“One of our clerks presented a cheque here yesterday,” I said.

The man looked up with an expression of surprise.

“Yes, certainly; there was a cheque cashed yesterday. Your handsome, fair-haired junior brought it.”

“Will you let me look at it?”

“Well, upon my word, it’s rather a strange—”

“Request. Perhaps. On the part of Messrs. Tyndale and Tyndale I—”

“O,” he said, “if you are commissioned by the firm to—”

“Never mind,” I said, “whether I am or not. As you think my request a strange one, I’ll put it in another way. Will you be so good as to look at the cheque yourself?”

“Yes, certainly. Here it is,” he added, selecting a paper from a drawer; “a cheque for forty. Payable to bearer.”

“Look at the signature of the firm.”

“Well, it’s right enough, I think. I ought to know the signature pretty well.”

“Look at the ‘y’ in ‘Tyndale.’”

He scrutinised the signature more closely, and lifted his eyebrows with a strange, perplexed expression.

“It’s rather stiff, isn’t it?” I said. “Not quite old Tyndale’s flowing caligraphy. Very near it, you know, and a very creditable imitation; but not quite the real thing.”

“It’s a forgery!” he said.

“It is.”

“How did you come to know of it?”

“Never mind that,” I answered. “Mr. Simmonds, have you any sons?”

“Three.”

“One about the age of Christopher Weldon, perhaps?”

“One pretty nearly his age.”

“Then you’ll help me to save this young man, won’t you?”

“How is it to be done?”

“Cancel the cheque, and replace the money.”

“My good young man, who’s to find the money?”

I drew a little canvas-bag out of my pocket, and turned out a heap of one-pound notes and spade-guineas upon the clerk’s desk.

“Here’s the exact sum,” I said; “forty pounds, ready money, for the slip of paper Christopher Weldon presented here at ten minutes to four yesterday evening.”

“But who finds this money?”

“I do. Christopher Weldon and I have been fellow-clerks for four months and upwards. I have seen his mother. I know how much she loves her only son. I know a girl who loves him. I don’t mind forty pounds out of my savings to keep this matter a secret. Mr. Simmonds, for the sake of your own sons, let me have that slip of paper, and cancel the cheque.”

The old man caught my hand in his, and shook it heartily. “Young Lowgood,” he said, “there’s not another lad in Willborough capable of such a generous action. If I were not a poor old fellow, with a hard fight of it to get a living, I’d be twenty pounds in this transaction; but I respect and honour you. I dare not give you back the cheque upon my own responsibility; but the senior partner is in his office; I’ll go and talk to him. Perhaps, when he hears the real state of the case, he’ll consent to hush the matter up and do what you want.”

The old man left me and remained away about a quarter of an hour, during which I sat in the quiet counting-house, with my heart beating loud and fast. I daresay the junior clerks wondered what my business could be as I sat waiting for their senior’s return. He came back at last.

“I’ve had a good deal of trouble,” he said, “but I have succeeded.”

I burst out laughing as he gave me the forged cheque in exchange for the forty pounds I counted out to him.

“Laugh away, laugh away,” said the old man; “you’ve need to have a light heart, Samuel Lowgood, for you’re a noble fellow.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

In our back office there was a great chest which had been disused for some years. The clerks let me have it for my own use, and inside it I had a smaller iron-clamped strong-box of my own, which I had bought of a broker on the quay. Into this strong-box I put the forged cheque.

Christopher Weldon’s high spirits entirely deserted him. It was such pleasure to me to watch him slyly as I sat beside him, apparently occupied only by my work, that I was almost tempted to neglect my business.

No more Beggars’ Opera, no more Polly, no more flute-playing in the dusk of the evening over at the gloomy old house.

“That lad Weldon is leaving off his giddy ways and growing industrious,” said the clerks; “he’ll get on in the world, depend upon it.”

“Let him — let him — let him,” I thought; “let him mount the ladder; and when he reaches the highest round — then — then—”

In the following March there were some changes made in the office. Tyndale and Tyndale had a branch house of business in Thames-street, London; and into this house Christopher Weldon was drafted, with a salary nearly double that which he had received in Willborougrh.

The change came about very suddenly. They wanted someone of gentlemanly appearance and polished manners in the London office, and Weldon, they said, was the very man.

I had not spoken to Lucy Malden for upwards of two months; but I thought I would go and tell her this piece of news.

“I shall find out whether she really loves him,” I thought.

She sat at her old place at the window, in the cold spring twilight, when I followed her father into the house and bade her good evening.

She was not paler than usual, for she had always been pale; nor graver, for she was always grave; but in spite of this, I saw that she had suffered.

My presence had no more effect upon her than if I had been nothing more sentient than the clumsy high-backed oak-chair upon which I leaned as I stood talking to her.

She looked at me when I spoke, answered me sweetly and gently, and then looked down again at her tedious work.

I knew that I had come, coward as I was, to stab this tender innocent heart; but I could not resist the fiendish temptation.

“So our pretty fair-haired boy is going to leave us,” I said by and by.

She knew whom I meant, and I saw the stiff embroidery shiver in her hand.

“Christopher?” she faltered.

“Young Mr. Weldon,” I said. “Yes, the gentleman clerk. He’s going away, never to come back here, I daresay. He’s going into the London house to make his fortune.”

She made me no answer, nor did she ask me a single question. She sat very quietly, going on with her work, sorting the gay-coloured silks, straining her eyes in the dusky light over the difficult pattern; but I saw — I saw how sharply I had struck this poor, pitiful, broken heart, and I knew now how much she had loved him.

Ten years from that day, I stood in the same room — she working at the same window — and asked her to be my wife.

“I do not ask,” I said, “for the love which you gave to another ten years ago. I do not ask for the beauty which those who speak to me of you say is faded out of your mournful face. You will always be to me the most beautiful of women, and your gentle tolerance will be dearer to me than the most passionate love of another. Lucy Malden, will you many me?”

She started up, letting her work fall out of her lap, and turning her face towards the window, burst into a passion of tears.

I had never seen her cry before.

At last she turned to me, with her face drowned in tears, and said, “Samuel Lowgood, ten years ago, day after day, and night after night, I waited for another to say the words which have just been said by you. I had every right to expect he should say them. He never did — he never did. Forgive me, forgive me, if it seems to break my heart afresh to hear them spoken by another!”

“He is a prosperous man in London,” I said. “Lucy Malden, will you be my wife?”

She dried her tears, and, coming slowly to me, put her little cold hand into mine.

“Does that mean yes?” I asked.

She only bent her head in answer.

“God bless you! and good-night.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

A year and a half after our marriage, we heard great news in the old Willborough house. Christopher Weldon had married a nobleman’s daughter, and was about to become a partner in the house of Tyndale and Tyndale.

A night or two after we heard this news, there came a great rattling knock at the grim dragon’s-head knocker of the house-door. My wife and I lived in her old apartments, by permission of the firm, and I had advanced to be head clerk in the Willborough office.

I was sitting, going over some accounts that I had not been able to finish in the day; so she looked up at the sound of the knocking, and said, “I’ll answer the door, Samuel — you’re tired.”

She was a good and gentle wife to me, from the first to the last.

Presently I started from my desk, and rushed down the stairs. I had heard a voice that I knew in the hall below.

My wife was lying on the cold stone flags, and Christopher Weldon bending over her.

“Poor little thing!” he said; “she has fainted.”

“This decides me, this decides me!” I thought; “I’ll have my forty pounds’-worth before long.”

Christopher Weldon had come down to the house to announce to us, its custodians, that he was about to occupy it, with his wife, the Lady Belinda Weldon.

He brought a regiment of London upholsterers the next day, and set them to work tearing the gloomy old rooms to pieces. My lady came too, in her gilded chair, and gave orders for a chintz here and damask there, and could not find words to express her contempt for the place and her despair of ever making it habitable; but declared that whatever taste and upholstery could do for such a gloomy dungeon of a place, was to be done. After her ladyship’s departure, a prim housekeeper came to inform my wife that we must be prepared to leave the house in a month. In a month the place was transformed, and at the end of the month Christopher Weldon was to give a great dinner-party, at which Messrs. Tyndale and Tyndale were to be present, to inaugurate his partnership. As senior clerk, I was honoured by an invitation.

My enemy had mounted to the highest round of the ladder. Rich, beloved, honoured, the husband of a lovely and haughty lady, partner in the great and wealthy house which he had entered as junior clerk — what more could fortune bestow upon him?

My time had come — the time at which it was worth my while to crush him.

“I will wait till the dinner is over, and the toasts have been drunk, and all the fine speeches have been made; and when Tyndale senior has proposed the health of the new partner, in a speech full of eulogy, I will hand him the forged cheque across the dinner-table.”

The night before the dinner-party, I was in such a fever of excitement, that I tried in vain to sleep. I heard every hour strike on the little clock in our bedroom. Tyndale and Tyndale had given us a couple of empty offices on our being turned out of the great house, and enough of their old-fashioned furniture to fit them up very comfortably.

One, two, three, four, five, the shrill strokes of the clock seemed to beat upon my brain. The hours seemed endless, and I sometimes thought the clock in our room and all the church-clocks of Willborough had stopped simultaneously.

At last, towards six o’clock in the morning, I dropped off into a feverish troubled sleep, in which I dreamed of the forged cheque, which I still kept locked in the strong box inside the great chest in the back office.

I dreamed that it was lost, that I went to the strong-box and found the cheque gone. The horror of the thought woke me suddenly. The broad sunshine was streaming in at the window, and the church-clocks were striking nine.

I had slept much later than usual. My wife had risen, and was seated in our little sitting-room at her accustomed embroidery. She was always very quiet and subdued, and sat at her work several hours every day.

My first impulse, on waking, was to look under my pillow for my watch, and a black ribbon, to which was attached the key of the strong-box. The key of the chest hung on a nail in the office, as nothing of any consequence was kept in that. My watch and the key were perfectly safe.

My mind was relieved, but I was in a fever of excitement all day.

“I will not take the cheque out of its hiding-place till the last moment,” I said; “not till the moment before I put on my hat to go to the dinner-party.”

My wife dressed me carefully in a grave snuff-coloured suit, which I generally wore on Sundays; she plaited my ruffles, and arranged my lawn-cravat with its lace ends. I looked an old man already, though I was little more than thirty-three years of age; and Christopher Weldon was handsomer than ever.

At four o’clock in the afternoon the courtyard was all astir with sedan-chairs and powdered footmen. My wife stood in the window, looking at the company alighting from their chairs at the great door opposite.

“You had better go, I think, Samuel,” she said; “the Tyndales have just arrived. Ah! there is my Lady Belinda at the window. How handsome she is! How magnificent she is, in powder and diamonds, and an amber-satin sacque!”

“You’ve a better right to wear amber satin and diamonds than she,” I said.

“I, Samuel!”

“Yes. Because you’re the wife of an honest man. She is not.”

I thought for love of him she would have fired up and contradicted me; but she only turned her face away and sighed.

“You will be late, Samuel,” she said.

“I have something to fetch out of the back office, and then I shall be ready,” I answered.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The fiend himself must be in the work. It was gone — gone, every trace of it. At first, in my blind, mad fury, I blasphemed aloud. Afterwards, I fell on my knees over the open chest, and wept — wept bitter tears of rage and anguish. It was gone!

* * * * * * * * * * *

I had a brain fever after this, which confined me for nine weeks to my bed.

Christopher Weldon lived and thrived, a prosperous and successful merchant — honoured, courted, admired, and beloved.

My wife and I, childless and poor, used to sit at our windows in the dusk, and watch his children at play in the courtyard beneath us, and hear the innocent voices echoing through the great house opposite.

Thirteen years and five months after our wedding-day, Lucy died in my arms; her last words to me were these:

“Samuel, I have done my best to do my duty, but life for me has never been very happy. Once only since our marriage have I deceived you. I saved you, by that action, from doing a great wrong to a man who had never knowingly wronged you. One night, Samuel, you talked in your sleep, and I learned from your disjointed sentences the story of Christopher Weldon’s crime. I learned, too, your purpose in possessing yourself of the only evidence of the forgery. I learned the place in which you kept that evidence; and, while you slept, I took the key from under your pillow, and opened the strong box. The cheque is here.”

She took it from a little black-silk bag which hung by a ribbon round her neck, and put it into my hand,— “Samuel, husband, we have read the Gospel together every Sunday evening through thirteen years. Will you use it now?”

“No, Lucy, no — angel — darling — no. You have saved him from disgrace — me from sin.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Every clerk in the house of Tyndale and Tyndale attended my wife’s funeral. Not only were the clerks present; but, pale, mournful, and handsome, in his long black cloak, Christopher Weldon stood amidst the circle round the grave.

As we left the churchyard he came up to me, and shook hands.

“Let us be better friends for the future, Samuel,” he said.

“My wife, when she died, bade me give you this,” I answered, as I put the forged cheque into his hand.

The Lawyer’s Secret

Chapter 1
In A Lawyer’s Office

“It is the most provoking clause that was ever invented to annul the advantages of a testament,” said the lady.

“It is a condition which must be fulfilled, or you lose the fortune,” replied the gentleman.

Whereupon the gentleman began to drum a martial air with the tips of his fingers upon the morocco-covered office-table; while the lady beat time with the point of her foot.

The gentleman was out of temper, and the lady was out of temper also. It is sad to have to state such a fact of the lady, for she was very young and very handsome, and, though the angry light in her dark-gray eyes had a certain vixenish beauty, it was a species of beauty rather alarming to a man of a nervous temperament.

She was very handsome. Her hair was of the darkest brown, her eyes gray — those large gray eyes, fringed with long black lashes, which are more dangerous than all other eyes ever invented for the perdition of honest men. They looked like deep pools of shining water, bordered by shadowy rushes; they looked like stray stars in a black midnight sky; but they were so beautiful, that like the signal-lamp which announces the advent of an express upon the heels of a slow train, they seemed to say, “Danger!” Her nose was aquiline; her mouth small, clearly cut, and very determined in expression; her complexion brunette, and rather pale. For the rest, she was tall, her head set with a haughty grace upon her sloping shoulders, her hands perfect.

The gentleman was ten or fifteen years her senior. He, too, was eminently handsome: but there was a languid indifference about his manner, which communicated itself even to his face, and seemed to overshadow the very beauty of that face.

That any one so gifted by nature as he seemed gifted could be as weary of life as he appeared, was, in itself, so much a mystery, that one learned to look at him as a man whose quiet outward bearing concealed some gloomy secret.

He was dark and pale, with massive features, and thoughtful brown eyes, which rarely looked fully at you from under the heavy eyelids that half shrouded them. The mouth was spiritual in expression, the lips thin; but the face was wanting in one quality, lacking which it lacked the power which is the highest form of manly beauty; and that quality was firmness.

He sat drumming with his slim fingers upon the table, and looking down, with a gloomy shade upon his forehead.

The scene was a lawyer’s office in Gray’s Inn. There was a third person present, an elderly lady, rather a faded beauty in appearance, and somewhat over-dressed. She took no part in the conversation, but sat in an easy-chair by the fire, turning over the crisp sheets of the Times newspaper, which, every time she moved them, emitted a sharp, crackling sound, unpleasant to the nervous temperaments of the younger lady and the gentleman.

The gentleman was a solicitor, Horace Margrave, the guardian of the young lady, and executor to her uncle’s will. Her name was Ellinor Arden; she was sole heiress and residuary legatee to her uncle, John Arden, of the park and village of Arden, in Northamptonshire; and she had this very day come of age. Mr. Margrave had been the trusted and valued friend of her father, dead ten years before, and of her uncle, only lately dead; and Ellinor Arden had been brought up to think, that if there were truth, honesty, or friendship upon earth, those three attributes were centred in the person of Horace Margrave, solicitor, of Gray’s Inn.

He is to-day endeavouring to explain and to reconcile her to the conditions of her uncle’s will, which are rather peculiar.

“In the first place, my dear Ellinor,” he says, still drumming on the table, still looking at his desk, and not at her, “you had no particular right to expect to be your uncle John Arden of Arden’s heiress.”

“I was his nearest relation,” she said.

“Granted; but that was no reason why you should be dear to him. Your father and he, after the amiable fashion that frequently obtains among brothers in this very Christian country, were almost strangers to each other for the best part of their lives. You your uncle never saw, since your father lived on his wife’s small property in the North of Scotland, and you were brought up in that remote region until your said father’s death, which took place ten years ago; after your father’s death you were sent to Paris, to be there educated under the surveillance of your aunt, and you therefore never made the acquaintance of John Arden of Arden, your father’s only brother.”

“My father had such a horror of being misinterpreted; had he sought to make his daughter known to his rich brother, it might have been thought—”

“That he wanted to get that rich brother’s money. It might have been thought? My dear girl, it would have been thought! Your father acted with the pride of the Northamptonshire Ardens; he acted like a high-minded English gentleman: and he acted, in the eyes of the world, like a fool. You never, then, expected to inherit your uncle’s money?”

“Never. Nor did I ever wish it. My mother’s little fortune would have been enough for me.”

“I wish to heaven you had never had a penny beyond it!” As Horace Margrave said these few words, the listless expression of his face was disturbed by a spasm of pain.

He so rarely spoke on any subject whatever in a tone of real earnestness, that Ellinor Arden, startled by the change in his manner, looked up at him suddenly and searchingly. But the veil of weariness had fallen over his face once more, and he continued, with his old indifference —

“To the surprise of everyone, your uncle bequeathed to you, and to you alone, his entire fortune, stranger as you were to him. This was an act, not of love for you, but of duty to his dead brother. The person nearest his heart was unconnected with him by the ties of kindred, and he no doubt considered that it would be an injustice to disinherit his only brother’s only child in favour of a stranger. This stranger, this protegé of your uncle’s, is the son of a lady who once was beloved by him, but who loved another, poorer and humbler than Squire Arden of Arden. She married this poorer suitor, George Dalton, a young surgeon, in a small country town. She married him, and three years after her marriage, she died, leaving an only child, a boy. This boy, on the death of his father, which happened when he was only four years old, was adopted by your uncle. He never married, but devoted himself to the education of the son of the woman who had rejected him. He did not, however, bring up the boy to look upon himself as his heir. He educated him as a man ought to be educated who has his own path to make in life. He gave young Dalton a university education, and sent him to the bar, where he pleaded his first cause a year before your uncle’s death. He did not leave the young barrister a shilling.”

“But—”

“But he left his entire fortune to you, on condition that you should marry Henry Dalton within a year of your majority.”

“And if I marry anyone else, or refuse to marry this apothecary’s son, I lose the fortune?”

“Every farthing of it.”

A sweet smile brightened her face as she rose hurriedly from her chair, and stood before the table at which the lawyer was seated.

“So be it,” she said resolutely. “I will forfeit the fortune. I have a hundred a-year from my poor mother’s estate — enough for any woman. I will forfeit the fortune, and—” she paused for a moment, and marry the man I love.”

It has been said that Horace Margrave had a pale complexion; but as Ellinor Arden said these words, his face changed from its ordinary dark pallor to a deadly ashen hue, and his strongly-marked black eyebrows contracted painfully over his half-closed eyes.

She stood with her small gloved hand resting lightly on the table, and her dark lashes downcast upon the faint crimson of her cheeks, so she did not see the change in Horace Margrave’s face. She waited a minute or two, to hear what he would say to her determination; and, on his not speaking, she turned from him impatiently, and resumed her seat.

Nothing could have been more indifferent than Mr. Margrave’s manner, as he looked lazily up at her, and said, “My poor romantic child! Throw away a fortune of three thousand a-year, to say nothing of Arden Hall, and the broad lands thereto appertaining, and marry the man you love! My sweet, poetical Ellinor, may I venture to ask who this fortunate man may be for whom you are prepared to make such a sacrifice.”

It seemed a very simple and straightforward question, emanating as it did from a man of business, many years her senior, her dead father’s old friend, and her own guardian and trustee; but Ellinor Arden appeared painfully embarrassed by it. A dark flush spread itself over her face; and her lips trembled faintly as she tried to speak, and failed to utter a word. She was silent for some minutes, during which Horace Margrave played with a penknife, opening and shutting it absently, and not once looking at his beautiful ward. The elderly lady by the fireplace turned the crackling sheets of the Times more than once during the short silence, which seemed so long.

Horace Margrave was the first to speak.

“My dear Ellinor, as your guardian, till this very day possessed of full power to control your actions — after to-day, I trust, still possessed of the right to advise them — I have surely some claim on your confidence. Tell me, then, candidly — as you may tell a middle-aged solicitor like myself — who is this most happy of mankind? who is it whom you would rather marry than Henry Dalton, your uncle’s adopted son?”

For once he looked at her as he spoke, she looking full at him; so it was that their eyes met. A long, earnest, reproachful, sad look was in hers; in his a darkness of gloomy sorrow, beyond all power of description.

His eyelids were the first to fall; he went on playing with the handle of the penknife, and said, “You are so long in giving me a candid and straightforward answer, my dear girl, that I begin to think this hero is rather a mythic individual, and that your heart is free. Tell me. Ellinor, is it not so? You have met so few people — have passed so much of your life in the utter seclusion of a Parisian convent — and when away from the convent you have been so protected by the Argus-like guardianship of your respected aunt — that I really cannot conceive how you can have lost that dear, generous heart of yours. I suspect that you are only trying to mystify me. Once for all, then, my dear ward, has anyone been so fortunate as to win your affection?”

He looked at her as he asked this decisive question with a shrinking upward glance under his dark eyelashes — something like the glance of a man who looks up, expecting a blow, and knows that he must shiver and close his eyes when that blow falls.

The crimson flush passed away from her face, and left her deadly pale, as she said, with a firm voice, “No!”

“No one?”

“No one.”

Horace Margrave sighed a deep sigh of relief, and proceeded in his former tone — the tone of a thorough man of business.

“Very well, then, my dear Ellinor, seeing that you have formed no prior attachment, that it is your uncle’s earnest request, nay, solemn prayer, that this marriage should take place; seeing, also, that Henry Dalton is a very good young man—”

“I hate good young men!” she said impatiently. “Dreadfully perfect beings, with light hair and fresh-coloured cheeks. Men who sing in church, and wear double-soled boots. I detest them.”

My dear Ellinor! — my dear Ellinor! Life is neither a stage-play nor a three-volume novel; and, rely upon it, the happiness of a wife depends very little on the colour of her husband’s hair, or the cut of his coat. If he neglects you, will you be happier, lonely and deserted at home, in remembering the haughty grace of his head, at that very moment, perhaps, bending over the green cloth of a club whist-table? If he wrings your heart with the tortures of jealousy, will it console you to recall the splendour of his hazel eyes, whose gaze no longer meets your own? No, no, Ellinor; dispossess yourself of the schoolgirl’s notion of Byronic heroes, with turn-down collars, and deficient moral region. Marry Henry Dalton. He is so good, honourable, and sensible, that you must ultimately learn to esteem him. Out of that esteem will grow affection; and, believe me, paradoxical as it may sound, you will love him better in the future from not loving him too much in the present.”

“As you please, my dear guardian,” replied Miss Arden. Henry Dalton by all means, then, and the fortune. I should be very sorry not to follow your excellent, sensible, and business-like advice.”

She said this with a simulation of his own indifference; but, in spite of herself, betrayed considerable agitation.

“If we are to dine at six—” interposed the faded lady by the fireplace, who had been looking over the top of the newspaper every three minutes, hopelessly awaiting a break in the conversation.

“We must go home directly,” replied Ellinor. “You are right, my dear Mrs. Morrison. Pray forgive me. Remember the happiness of a life,” — she looked not at Mrs. Morrison, but at Mr. Margrave, who had risen and stood leaning against the mantelpiece in an attitude expressive of supreme listlessness,— “the happiness of a life, perhaps, depended on the interview of to-day. I have made my decision, at the advice of my guardian. A decision which must, no doubt, result in the happiness of everyone concerned. I am quite at your service, Mrs. Morrison.”

Horace Margrave laid his hand on the bell by his side.

“Your carriage will be at the entrance to the Inn in three minutes, Ellinor. I will see you to the gate. Believe me, you have acted wisely; how wisely, you may never know.”

He himself conducted them down the broad panelled staircase, and, putting on his hat, led his ward through the quiet inn to her carriage. She was grave and silent, and he did not speak to her till she was seated with her elderly companion and chaperone in her roomy landau, when he leaned his hand on the carriage-door, and said:

“I shall bring Henry Dalton to Hertford-street this evening, to introduce him to his future wife.”

Pray do so,” she said. “Adieu!”

“Only till eight o’clock.”

He lifted his hat, and stood watching the carriage as it drove away, then walked slowly back to his chambers, flung himself into a luxurious easy-chair, took a cigar from a small Venetian casket standing on a table at his side, lit it, wheeled his chair close to the fire, planted the heels of his boots against the polished steel of the low grate, and prepared for a lazy half hour before dinner.

As he lit the cigar, he looked gloomily into the blaze at his feet, and said:

“Horace Margrave, if you had only been an honest man!”

 

Chapter 2
In Which A Secret Is Revealed

The hands of the ormolu clock, in the little drawing-room in Hertford-street occupied by Ellinor Arden and her companion, chaperone, and dependent, Mrs. Morrison, pointed to a quarter-past eight, as Mr. Margrave’s quiet brougham rolled up to her door.

Horace Margrave’s professional position was no inconsiderable one. His practice was large and eminently respectable; lying principally amongst railway companies, and involving transactions of a very extensive kind. He was a man of excellent family, elegant, clever, and accomplished; too good for a lawyer, as everybody said; but a very good lawyer for all that, as his clients constantly repeated. At two-and-thirty he was still unmarried; why, no one could guess; as more than one great heiress, and many a pretty woman, would have been proud to say “Yes” to a matrimonial proposition from Horace Margrave, of Gray’s Inn, and the Fir Grove, Stanleydale, Berkshire. But the handsome lawyer evidently preferred his free bachelor life; for if his heart had been very susceptible to womanly graces, he would most inevitably have lost it in the society of his lovely ward, Ellinor Arden.

Ellinor had only been a few weeks resident in London; she had left the guardianship of a maternal aunt in Paris, to launch herself upon the whirlpool of English society, sheltered only by the ample wing of an elderly lady, duly selected and chartered by her aunt and Mr. Margrave. The world was new to her, and she came from the narrow circle of the convent in which she had been educated, and the quiet coteries of the Faubourg Saint Germains, in which her aunt delighted, to take her position at once in London, as the sole heiress of John Arden, of Arden.

It was then to Horace Margrave — to Horace Margrave, whom she remembered in her happy youth among the Scottish mountains, a young man on a shooting expedition, visiting at her father’s house — Horace Margrave, who had visited her aunt, from time to time, in Paris, and who had exhibited towards her all the tender friendship of an elder brother — to him, and to him alone, did she look for counsel and guidance; and she submitted as entirely to his influence as if he had indeed been that guardian and father he by law represented.

Her cheek flushed as the carriage-wheels stopped below the window.

“Now, Mrs. Morrison,” she said with a sneer; “now for my incomparable futur. Now for the light hair and the thick boots.”

“It will be very ill-bred if he comes in thick boots,” replied her matter-of-fact chaperone. “Mr. Margrave says he is such an excellent young person.”

“Exactly, my dear Mrs. Morrison — a young person. He is described in one word — a ‘person.’”

“O, my dream, my dream!” she murmured under her breath.

She had but this day passed wisdom’s Rubicon, and she was new to the hither bank. She was still very romantic, and perhaps very foolish.

The servant announced “Mr. Margrave and Mr. Dalton,” In spite of herself, Ellinor Arden looked up with some curiosity to see this young man, for whom she entertained so profound a contempt and so unmerited an aversion. He was about three years her senior; of average height. His hair was, as she had prophesied, light; but it was by no means an ugly colour, and it framed a broad and massive forehead. His features were sufficiently regular; his eyes dark blue. The expression of his face was grave, and it was only on rare occasions that a quiet smile played round his firmly-moulded lips. Standing side by side with Horace Margrave, he appeared anything but a handsome man; but to the physiognomist his face was superior in the very qualities in which the countenance of the lawyer was deficient — force, determination, self-reliance, perseverance; all those attributes, in short, which go to make a great man.

“Mr. Dalton has been anxiously awaiting the hour that should bring him to your side, Miss Arden,” said Horace Margrave. “He has been for a long time acquainted with those articles in your uncle’s will which you only learned to-day.”

“I am sorry Miss Arden should have ever learned them, if they have given her pain,” said the young man quietly.

Ellinor looked up in his face, and saw that the blue eyes, looking down into hers, had a peculiar earnestness.

“He is not so bad, after all,” she thought. “I have been foolish in ridiculing him; but I can never love him.”

“Miss Arden,” he continued, dropping into a chair by the sofa on which she was seated, while Horace Margrave leaned against the opposite side of the fireplace—“Miss Arden, we meet under such peculiar circumstances, that it is best for the happiness of both that we should at once understand each other. Your late uncle was the dearest friend I ever had; no father could have been dearer to the most affectionate of sons than he was to me. Any wish, then, of his must to me be for ever sacred. But I have been brought up to rely upon myself alone, and can truly say I have no better wish than to make my own career, unaided by interest or fortune. The loss, then, of this money will be no loss to me. If it be your will to refuse my hand, and to retain the fortune to which you alone have a claim, do so. You shall never be disturbed in the possession of that to which you, of all others, have the best right. Mr. Margrave, your solicitor and executor to your uncle’s will, shall to-morrow execute a deed abnegating, on my part, all claim to this fortune; and I will, at one word from you, bid you adieu this night, before,” he added slowly, with an earnest glance at her beautiful face,— “before my heart is too far involved to allow of my being just to you.”

“Mr. Dalton,” said Horace Margrave, lazily watching the two from under the shadows of his eyelashes, “you bring Roman virtue into May Fair. You will purify the atmosphere.”

“Shall I go or stay, Miss Arden?” asked the young man.

“Stay, Mr. Dalton.” She rose as she spoke, and laid her hand, as if for support, upon the back of a chair that was standing near her. “Stay, Mr. Dalton. If your happiness can be made by the union, which was my late uncle’s wish, let it be so. I cannot hold this fortune, which is not mine; but I may share it. I will confess to you, and I know your generous nature will esteem me better for the confession, that I have ventured to cherish a dream in which the image of another had a part. I have been foolish, mistaken, absurd; as schoolgirls often are. The dream is over. If you can accept my uncle’s fortune and my own esteem; one is yours by right, the other has been won by your conduct of this evening.”

She held out her hand to him. He pressed it gently, raised it to his lips, led her back to the sofa, and reseated himself in the chair by her side.

Horace Margrave closed his eyes, as if the long-expected blow had fallen.

The rest of the evening passed slowly. Mr. Margrave talked, and talked brilliantly; but he had a very dull audience. Ellinor was absent-minded, Henry Dalton thoughtful, and Mrs. Morrison eminently stupid. The lawyer found it hard work to be brilliant in such dull company. When the clock, on which an ormolu Pan reclined amidst a forest of bronze rushes, chimed the half-hour after ten, he carried away Mr. Dalton; and Ellinor was left to ponder upon the solemn engagement into which she had entered on the impulse of the moment.

“I had better take a cab to the Temple,” said young Dalton as they left the house. “I’ll wish you good-night, Mr. Margrave.”

“No, Mr. Dalton, I have something to say to you that must be said, and which I think I’d rather say by night than by day. If you are not afraid of late hours, come home with me to my chambers, and smoke a cigar. I must have an hour’s conversation with you before you see Ellinor Arden again. Shall it be to-night? I ask it as a favour; let it be to-night.”

Henry Dalton looked considerably astonished by the lawyer’s words and manner; but he merely bowed, and said, “With great pleasure. I am entirely at your service. If I returned to my chambers I should read for two or three hours, so pray do not be afraid of keeping me up.”

Henry Dalton and Horace Margrave sat talking for nearly three hours in the chambers of the latter; but no cigars were smoked by either of them, and though a bottle of Madeira stood on the table, it was untouched. It was to be observed, however, that a cellaret had been opened, and a decanter of brandy taken out; the stopper lay beside it, and one glass, which had been drained to the dregs.

The clocks were striking two as Horace Margrave opened the outer door for his late visitor. On the threshold he paused, laid his hand, with a strong grasp, on Dalton’s arm, and said in a whisper, “I am safe, then! Your promise is sacred!”

Henry Dalton turned and looked him full in the face — looked full at the pale face and downcast eyes.

“The Daltons of Lincolnshire are not an aristocratic race, Mr. Margrave; but they keep their word. Good-night.”

He did not hold out his hand at parting, but merely lifted his hat and bowed gravely.

Horace Margrave sighed as he locked the doors, and returned to his warm study.

“At least,” he said, “I am safe. But then I might have been happy. Have I been wise to-night? I wonder whether I have been wise,” he muttered, as his eyes wandered to a space over the mantelpiece, on which were arranged two pairs of magnificently-mounted pistols, and a small dagger in a chased silver scabbard. “Perhaps, after all, it was scarcely worth the trouble of this explanation; perhaps, after all, so miserable a game is scarcely worth the candle that lights it.”

 

Chapter 3
After The Honeymoon

Three months had elapsed since the midnight interview in Horace Margrave’s chambers — three months, and the Opera House was opened for the season, and three new tenors, and two sopranos, and a basso-baritono had appeared under the classic proscenium of her Majesty’s Theatre; the novel of the season was in full circulation; Rotten Row was gay with Amazonian equestrians and blase lifeguardsmen; moss-roses were selling on the dusty pavements of the West-end streets; and Covent Garden was all a-bloom with artistically-arranged bouquets, and all a-glow with Algerian fruits; — London, in short, was in the full flood-tide of the season, when Mr and Mrs. Henry Dalton returned from their honeymoon visit to the Cumberland lake-district, and took up their abode in the small house in Hertford-street furished by Ellinor before her marriage.

Hers has been a short courtship; all the sweet uncertainties, the doubts, the dreams, the fears, the hopes which make up the poetical prologue to a love-match, have been wanting in this marriage ordained by the will of her late uncle — this marriage, which is founded on esteem and not on affection? this marriage, into which she has entered on the generous impulse of an impetuous nature, which has never submitted itself to the discipline of reason.

Is she happy? Can this cold esteem, this calm respect which she feels for the man chosen for her by another, satisfy the ardent heart of the romantic girl?

She has been already married six weeks, and she has not seen Horace Margrave, the only friend she has in England — except, of course, her husband — since her wedding-day; not since that sunny morning on which he took her icy hand in his and gave her, as her guardian and the representative of her dead father, into her husband’s arms. She remembered that on that day when his hand touched hers it was as cold and nerveless as her own, and that his listless face was even paler than usual under the spring sunshine streaming in at the church-windows. But in spite of this he did the honours of the breakfast-table, toasted the bride and bridegroom, complimented the bridesmaids, and pleased everybody, with the finished grace and marvellous ease of the all-accomplished Horace Margrave. And if Ellinor had ever thought that she had a right, for auld lang syne, for her dead father’s sake, or for her own lovely face, to be anything more or dearer to Mr. Margrave than the most indifferent of his clients, that thought was dispelled by the gentlemanly sang-froid of his adieu, as the four prancing steeds started off on the first stage to Windermere.

It was the end of June, and Mrs. Dalton was seated in the small drawing-room, awaiting the advent of morning visitors. Bridegroom and bride had been a week in town, and Horace Margrave had not yet called upon them. She had a weary air this morning, and sought in vain for something to occupy her. Now she strolled to the open piano, and played a few chords of a brilliant run, or softly touched the notes of some pensive air, and sang a few soft Italian syllables; now she took up an uncut novel from the table, and read a page or two-here and there, wherever the book opened. Anon she walked to an embroidery-frame, and took a great deal of trouble in selecting wools and threading needles; but when this was accomplished she did not work three stitches. After this she loitered listlessly about the room, looking at the pictures and proof engravings which adorned the pale silver-gray walls; but at last she was so utterly weary, that she sank into an easy-chair by the open window, and sat idly looking down across a liliputian forest of heliotrope and geranium into the hot sunny street.

She was looking very lovely, but she was not looking happy. Her dark-brown hair was brushed away from her broad low brow, and secured in a coil of superb plaits at the back of her head; her white morning-dress was only ornamented by large knots of violet ribbon, and she wore no jewellery whatever, except a tiny, slender gold chain, which she twisted perpetually between her slim white fingers.

She sat thus for about half an hour, always looking across the plants in the balcony at the pavement opposite, when she suddenly wrenched the thin chain off her fingers.

She had seen the person for whom she had been waiting. A gentleman, who lounged along the other side of the street, crossed the road beneath the window, and knocked at the door.

“At last!” she muttered to herself; “now, perhaps, this mystery will be explained.”

A servant announced Mr. Margrave.

“At last!” she said again, rising as he entered the room. “O, Mr. Margrave, I have been so anxious to see you.”

He looked about on the crowded table to find amongst its fashionable litter a place for his hat; failed in doing so, and put it down on a chair; and then, for the first time, looked at his late ward:

“Anxious to see me, my dear Ellinor; why anxious?”

“Because there are two or three questions which I must ask, which you must answer.”

That peculiar expression in Horace Margrave’s eyes, which was as it were a shiver of the eyelids, passed over them now; but it was too brief to be perceived by Ellinor Dalton. He sank into a chair; near her own, but not opposite to it. He paused to place this chair with its back to the light, and then said, “My dear Ellinor — my dear Mrs. Dalton — what questions can you have to ask me but questions of a purely business character; and even those I imagine your husband, who is quite as practical a man as myself, could answer as well as I?”

“Mr. Dalton is the very last person to whom I can apply for an answer to the questions which I have to ask.”

“And why the last person?”

“Because those questions relate to himself.”

“O, I see! My dear Mrs. Dalton, is not this rather a bad beginning? You appeal from your husband to your solicitor.”

“No, Mr. Margrave; I appeal to my guardian.”

“Pardon me, my dear Ellinor, there is no such person. He is defunct; he is extinct. From the moment I placed your hand in that of your husband before the altar of St. George’s, Hanover-square, my duties, my right to advise you, and your right to consult me, expired. Henceforth you have but one guardian, one adviser, one friend, and his name is Henry Dalton.”

A dark shadow came over Ellinor Dalton’s face, and her eyes filled with tears as she said, “Mr. Margrave, Heaven forbid that I should say a word which could be construed into a reproach to you. Your duties of guardianship, undertaken at the prayer of my dying father, have been as truly and conscientiously discharged as such duties should be discharged by a man of your high position and unblemished character. But I will own that sometimes, with a woman’s folly, I have wished that, for the memory of my dead father, who loved and trusted you, for the memory of the old days in which we were companions and friends, some feeling a little warmer, a little kinder, a little more affectionate, something of the tenderness of an elder brother, might have mingled with your punctilious fulfilment of the duties of guardian. I would not for the world reproach you, still less reproach you for an act for which I only am responsible; yet I cannot but remember that, if it had been so, this marriage might never have taken place.”

“It is not a happy marriage, then?”

“It is a most unhappy one!”

Horace Margrave was silent for a few moments, and then begun, gravely, almost sadly, “My dear Mrs. Henry Dalton,” — he seemed especially scrupulous in calling her Mrs. Dalton, as if he had been anxious to remind her every moment how much their relations had changed,— “when you accuse me of a want of tenderness in my conduct towards yourself, of an absence of regard for the memory of your father, my kind and excellent friend, you accuse me of that for which I am no more responsible than for the colour of my hair, or the outline of my face. You accuse me of that which is perhaps the bane of my existence — a heart incapable of cherishing a strong affection, or a sincere friendship, for any living being. Behold me, at five-and-thirty years of age, unloved and unloving, without one tie which I cannot as easily break as I can pay an hotel-bill or pack my portmanteau. My life, at its brightest, is a dreary one — a dreary present, which can neither look back to a fairer past, nor forward to a happier future!”

His deep musical voice fell into a sadder cadence with these last words, and he looked down gloomily at the point of the cane with which he absently traced vague hieroglyphics upon the carpet. After a short silence, he looked up and said, “But you wished to make some inquiries of me?”

“I did; I do. When I married Mr. Dalton, what settlements were made? You told me nothing at the time, and I, so utterly unused to business matters, asked you no questions. Besides, I had then reason to think him the most honourable of men.”

“What settlements were made?” asked the lawyer, repeating Ellinor’s question, as if it were the last of all others which he expected to hear.

“Yes; what arrangements were made about my fortune? How much of it was settled on myself?”

“Not one penny.” Mrs. Dalton gave a start of surprise, which Mr. Margrave answered in his most nonchalant manner. “Not one penny of it. There was no mention whatever of any such legal formality in your uncle’s will. He left his money to you, but he left it to you only on condition that you shared it with his adopted son, Henry Dalton. This implied not only a strong affection for, but an implicit faith in, the young man. To tie up your money, or to settle it on yourself, would be to stultify your uncle’s will. The man that could be trusted by him could be trusted by you. This is why I suggested no settlement. It is just possible that I acted in rather an unlawyer-like manner; but I believe that I acted in the only manner consonant with your late uncle’s affectionate provisions for the two persons nearest and dearest to him.”

“Then Henry Dalton is sole master of my — of the fortune?”

“As your husband, decidedly, yes.”

“And he may, if he pleases, sell the Arden estate?”

“The Arden estate is not entailed. Certainly he may sell it, if he wishes.”

“Then, Mr. Margrave, I must inform you that he does wish to sell it, that he does intend to sell it.”

“To sell Arden Hall?”

“Yes.”

An angry flush crimsoned her face as she looked eagerly into the lawyer’s eyes for one flash of surprise or indignation. She looked in vain.

“Well, my dear Mrs. Dalton, in my opinion your husband shows himself a very sensible fellow by determining on such a proceeding. Arden is one of the dreariest, draughtiest, most dilapidated old piles of building in all England. It possesses all the leading features of a country mansion; magnificent oak panelling, contemptible servants’ offices; three secret staircases, and not one register-stove; six tapestried chambers, and no bath-room; a dozen Leonardo da Vincis, and not one door that does not let in assassination, in the shape of a north-east wind; a deer-park, and no deer; three gamekeepers’ lodges, and not game enough to tempt the most fatuitous of poachers!

Sell Arden Hall! Nothing could be more desirable. But, alas, my dear Ellinor, your husband is not the man I take him for, if he calculates upon finding a purchaser.”

Mrs. Dalton regarded the lawyer with not a little contempt, as she said, “But the want of feeling, the outrage upon the memory of my poor uncle!”

“Your poor uncle will not be remembered a day the longer through your retaining possession of a draughty and uncomfortable house. When did Dalton tell you this intention of his?”

“On our return from our tour. I suggested that we should live there — that is, of course, out of the season.”

“And he — ?”

“Replied that it was out of the question our ever residing there, as the place must be sold.”

“You asked him his reasons?”

“I did. He told me that he was unable to reveal those reasons to me, and might never be able to reveal them. He said, that if I loved him, I could trust him and believe in him, and believe that the course he took, however strange it might appear to me, was in reality the best and wisest course he could take.”

“But, in spite of this, you doubt him?” asked Horace earnestly.

“How can I do otherwise? He refuses me the slightest freedom in my use of the fortune which I have brought to him. He, the husband of a rich woman, enjoins economy — economy even in the smallest details. I dare not order a jewel, a picture, an elegant piece of furniture, a stand of hothouse flowers; for, if I do so, I am told that the expenditure is beyond his present means, and that I must wait till we have more money at our command. Then, again, his profession is a thousand times dearer to him than I. No briefless, penniless barrister, with a mother and sister to support, ever worked harder than he works, ever devoted himself more religiously than he devotes himself to the drudging routine of the bar.”

“Ellinor Dalton, your husband is as high-minded and conscientious a man as ever lived upon this earth. I seldom take the trouble of making a vehement assertion; so believe me, if you can, now that I do. Believe me, even if you cannot believe him.”

“You too, against me?” cried Ellinor mournfully. “O, believe me, it is not the money I want, it is not the possession of the money which I grudge him; it is only that my heart sinks at the thought of being united to a man I cannot respect or esteem. I did not ask to love him,” she added, half to herself; “but I did pray that I might be able to esteem him.”

“I can only say, Ellinor, that you are mistaken in him.” At this moment came the sound of a quick firm step on the stairs, and Henry Dalton himself entered the room. His face was bright and cheerful, and he advanced to his wife eagerly; but at the sight of Horace Margrave he fell back with a frown.

“Mr. Margrave, I thought it was part of our agreement that—”

The lawyer interrupted him.

“That I should never darken this threshold. Yes.”

Ellinor looked from one to the other with a pale, frightened face.

“Mr. Dalton,” she exclaimed, “what, in Heaven’s name, does this mean?”

“Nothing that in the least can affect you, Ellinor. A business disagreement between myself and Mr. Margrave; nothing more.”

His wife turned from him scornfully, and approaching Horace Margrave, rested her hand on the scroll-work at the back of the chair on which he sat.

It was so small an action in itself, but it said, as plainly as words could speak, “This is the man I trust, in spite of you, in spite of the world.”

It was not lost on Henry Dalton, who looked at his wife with a grave, reproachful glance, and said, “Under these circumstances, then, Mr. Margrave—”

“I had no right to come here. Granted; and I should not have come, but—”

He hesitated a moment, and Ellinor interrupted him.

“I wrote to my guardian, requesting him to call on me. Mr. Dalton, what is the meaning of this? What mystery does all this conceal? Am I to see my best and oldest friend insulted in my own house?”

“A married woman has no friend but her husband: and I may not choose to receive Mr. Margrave as a visitor in our house,” Henry Dalton replied, coldly and gravely.

“You shall not be troubled any longer with Horace Margrave’s society, Mr. Dalton,” said the lawyer, rising, and walking slowly to the door. “Good-morning.” His hand was upon the lock, when he turned, and with a tone of suppressed emotion addressed Mrs. Dalton: “Ellinor, shake hands with me,” he said. That was all. His sometime ward extended both her hands to him. He took them in his, bent his dark head over them for a moment as he held them in his grasp, and murmured hoarsely, “Forgive me, Ellinor, and farewell.”

He was gone. She hurried out on to the landing-place, and called after him, “Mr. Margrave, guardian, Horace, come back! if only for one moment, come back!”

Her husband followed her, and led her back to the drawingroom.

“Ellinor Dalton, choose between that man and me. Seek to renew your acquaintance with him, or hold any communication whatsoever with him that does not pass through my hands; and we part for ever.”

The young wife fell sobbing into her chair.

“My only friend!” she cried; “my only, only friend! and to be parted from him thus!”

Her husband stood at a little distance from her, earnestly, sadly watching her, as she gave full sway to her emotion.

“What wretchedness! what utter wretchedness!” he said aloud; and no hope of a termination to it, no chance of an end to our misery.”

 

Chapter 4
At Baldwin Court

Henry Dalton prospered in his profession. Gray-headed old judges talked over their after-dinner port of the wonderful acumen displayed by the rising junior in the most important and difficult cases. One, two, three years passed away, and the name of Dalton began to be one of mark upon the Northern Circuit. The dawn often found him working in his chambers in Paper-buildings, while his handsome wife was dancing at some brilliant assembly, or listening to the vapid platitudes of one of her numerous admirers and silent adorers. With Ellinor Dalton, to be unhappy was to be reckless. Hers was that impulsive and emotional nature which cannot brood upon its griefs in the quiet circle of a solitary home. She considered herself wronged by her husband’s parsimony, still more deeply wronged by his cold reserve; and she sought in the gayest circles of fashionable London for the peace which had never dwelt at her cold and deserted hearth.

“His profession is all in all to him,” she said; “but there is at least the world left for me; and if I cannot be loved I will prove to him that I can be admired.”

At many of the houses in which she was a constant visitor Horace Margrave was also a familiar guest. The wealthy bachelor lawyer was sure of a welcome wherever mamma had daughters to marry, and wherever papa had money to invest or mortgages to effect. To her old guardian Ellinor’s manner never underwent the shadow of a change.

“You may refuse to admit him here, you may forbid my correspondence with him. I acknowledge the right you exercise so harshly,” she would say to her husband; “but you cannot shake my faith in my dead father’s friend; you cannot control my sentiments towards the guardian of my childhood.” But by degrees she found that Horace Margrave was to be seen less frequently every day at those houses in which she visited. It was growing a rare thing now for her to see the dark handsome head overtopping the crowd in which the lawyer mingled; and even when she did meet him, though his voice had still its old gentleness, there was a tacit avoidance of her in his manner, which effectually checked any confidence between them. This was for the first two years after her marriage. In the third she heard accidentally that Horace Margrave was travelling in Switzerland, and had left the entire management of his very extensive business to a junior partner.

In the autumn of the third year, Ellinor was staying with her husband at the country house of his friend, Sir Lionel Baldwin. Since that day on which the scene with Horace Margrave had taken place in the little drawing-room in Hertford-street, Ellinor Dalton and her husband had had no explanation whatever. On that day, the young man had fallen on his knees at the feet of his sobbing wife, and had most earnestly implored her to believe in his faith and honour, and to believe that, in everything he did, he had a motive so strong and so disinterested as to justify his conduct. He begged her to believe also that the marriage, on his part, had been wholly a love-match; that he had been actuated by no mercenary considerations whatever; and that if he now withheld the money to which, in all appearance, she had so good a right, it was because it was not in his power to lavish it upon her. But he implored in vain. Prejudiced against him from the very first, she had only trusted him for a brief period, to doubt him more completely than ever at the first suspicion that suggested itself. Wounded in her affection for another — an affection whose strength, perhaps, she scarcely dared to confess to herself — her feeling for Henry Dalton became one almost bordering on aversion. His simple, practical good sense; his plain, unpolished manners; his persevering, energetic, and untiring pursuit of a vocation with which she had no sympathy — all these qualities jarred upon her enthusiastic temperament, and blinded her to his actual merits. The world, which always contrives to know every thing, very soon made itself completely acquainted with the eccentric conditions of Mr. Arden’s will, and the circumstances of Henry Dalton’s marriage.

It was known to be a marriage of convenience, and not of affection. He was a very lucky fellow, and she was very much to be pitied. This was the general opinion, which Ellinor’s palpable indifference to her husband went strongly to confirm.

Mr and Mrs. Dalton had been staying for a week at Baldwin Court, when the young barrister was compelled, by his professional pursuits, to leave his wife for a few days under the protection of his old friends, Sir Lionel and Lady Baldwin.

“You will be very happy here, my dear Ellinor,” he said; “the house is full of pleasant people, and you know what a favourite you are with the Baldwins. You will not miss me,” he added, with a sigh, as he looked at her indifferent face.

“Miss you! O, pray do not alarm yourself, Mr. Dalton! I am not so used to usurp your time or attention. I know, when your professional duties are concerned, how small a consideration I am to you.”

“I should not work hard were I not compelled to do so, Ellinor,” he said, with a shade of reproach in his voice.

“My dear Mr. Dalton,” she answered coldly, “I have no taste for mysteries. You are perfectly free to pursue your own course.”

So they parted. She bade him adieu with as much well-bred indifference as if he had been her jeweller or her haberdasher. As the light little phaeton drove him off to the railway station, he looked up to the chintz-curtained windows of his wife’s apartments, and said to himself, “How long is this to endure, I wonder? — this unmerited wretchedness, this cruel misconception.”

The morning after Henry Dalton’s departure, as Sir Lionel Baldwin, seated at breakfast, opened the letter-bag, he exclaimed, with a tone of mingled surprise and pleasure, “So the wanderer has returned! At the very bottom of the bag I can see Horace Margrave’s dashing superscription. He has returned to England.”

He handed his visitors their letters, and then opened his own, reserving the lawyer’s epistle to the last.

“This is delightful! Horace will be down here to-night.” Ellinor Dalton’s cheek grew pale at the announcement; for the mysterious feud between her guardian and her husband flashed upon her mind. She would meet him here, then, alone. Now, or never, might she learn this secret — this secret which, no doubt, involved some meanness on the part of Henry Dalton, the apothecary’s son.

“Margrave will be an immense acquisition to our party — will he not, gentlemen?” asked Sir Lionel.

“An acquisition! Well, really now, I don’t know about that,” drawled a young government clerk from Whitehall. “Do you know, Sir Lionel, it’s my opinion that Horace Margrave is used up? I met him at — at what-you-may-call-it — Rousseau and Gibbon, Childe Harold and the Nouvelle Hèloise: you know the place,” he said vaguely; “somewhere in Switzerland, in short, — last July, and I never saw a man so altered in my life.”

“Altered!” exclaimed the Baronet.

Ellinor Dalton’s face grew paler still.

“Yes, ’pon my honour, very much altered indeed. You don’t think he ever committed a murder, or anything of that kind, do you?” said the young man reflectively, as he drew over a basin and deliberately dropped four or five lumps of sugar into his coffee. “Because, upon my honour, he looked like that sort of thing.”

“My dear Fred, don’t be a fool. Looked like what sort of thing?”

“You know; a guilty conscience — Lara, Manfred. You understand. Upon my word,” added the youthful official, looking round with a languid laugh, “he had such a Wandering-Jew-ish and ultra-Byronic appearance, when I met him suddenly among some very uncomfortable kind of chromolithographie mountain scenery, that I asked him if he had an appointment with the Witch of the Alps, or any of that sort of people?”

One or two country visitors laughed faintly, seeing the young man meant to be jocose; and the guests from town only stared, as the government official looked round the table. Ellinor Dalton never took her eyes from his face, but seemed to wait anxiously for anything he might say next.

“Perhaps Margrave has been ill,” said the Baronet; “he told me, when he went to Switzerland, that he was leaving England for change of air and scene.”

“Ill!” said the government clerk. “Ah, to be sure; I never thought of that. He might have been ill. It’s difficult, sometimes, to draw the line between a guilty conscience and the liver-complaint. Perhaps it was only his liver, after all. But you don’t think,” he said appealingly, returning to his original idea, “you don’t think that he has committed a murder, and buried the body in Verulam-buildings — do you? That would account for his going to Switzerland, you know; for he couldn’t possibly stop with the body — could he?”

“You’d better ask him the question yourself, Fred,” said Sir Lionel, laughing; “if everybody had as good a conscience as Horace Margrave, the world would be better stocked than it is with honest men. Horace is a noble-hearted fellow; I’ve known him from a boy. He’s a glorious fellow.”

“And a crack shot,” said a young military man with his mouth full of buttered toast and anchovy paste.

“And a first-rate billiard-player,” added his next neighbour, who was occupied in carving a ham.

“And one of the longest-headed fellows in the Law-List” said a grave old gentleman sententiously.

“Extremely handsome,” faltered one young lady.

“And then, how accomplished!” ventured another.

“Then you don’t think, really now, that he has committed a murder, and buried the body in his chambers?” asked the Whitehall employé, putting the question to the company generally.

In the dusk of that autumnal evening, Ellinor Dalton sat alone in a tiny drawing-room leading out of the great saloon, which was a long room, with six windows and two fireplaces, and with a great many indifferent pictures in handsome frames.

This tiny drawing-room was a favourite retreat of Ellinor’s. It was deliciously furnished, and it communicated, by a half-glass door shrouded by cream-coloured damask curtains, with a large conservatory, which opened on to the terrace-walk that ran along one side of the house. Here she sat in the dusky light, pensive and thoughtful, on the evening after her husband’s departure. The gentlemen were all in the billiard-room, hard at work with balls and cues, trying to settle some disputed wager before the half-hour bell rang to summon them to their dressing-rooms. The ladies were already at their toilettes; and Ellinor, who had dressed earlier than usual, was quite alone. It was too dark for her to read or work, and she was too weary and listless to ring for lamps; so she sat with her hands lying idly in her lap, pondering upon the morning’s conversation about Horace Margrave.

Suddenly a footstep behind her, falling softly on the thick carpet, roused her from her reverie, and she looked up with a startled glance at the glass over the low chimneypiece.

In the dim firelight she saw, reflected in the shadowy depths of the mirror, the haggard and altered face of her sometime guardian, Horace Margrave.

He wore a loose overcoat, and had his hat in his hand. He had evidently only just arrived.

He drew back on seeing Ellinor, but as she turned to speak to him, the firelight behind her left her face in the shadow, and he did not recognise her.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, “for disturbing you. I have been looking everywhere for Sir Lionel.”

“Mr. Margrave! Don’t you know me? It is I — Ellinor!” The hat fell from Horace Margrave’s slender hand, and he leaned against a high-backed easy-chair for support.

“Ellinor — Mrs. Dalton — you here! I — I — heard you were in Paris, or I should never — that is to say — I”

For the first time in her life Ellinor Dalton saw Horace Margrave so agitated that the stony mask of gentlemanly sang-froid, which he ordinarily wore, dropped away, and revealed — himself.

“Mr. Margrave,” she said anxiously, “you are annoyed at seeing me here. O, how altered you are! They were right in what they said this morning. You are indeed altered; you must have been very ill!”

Horace Margrave was himself again. He picked up his hat, and sinking lazily into the easy-chair upon which he had been leaning, said:

“Yes; I have had rather a severe attack — fever — exhaustion — the doctors, in fact, were so puzzled as to what they should call my illness, that they actually tried to persuade me that I had nerves — like a young lady who has been jilted by a life-guardsman, or forbidden by her parents to marry a country curate with seventy pounds per annum, and three duties every Sunday. A nervous lawyer! My dear Mrs. Dalton, can you imagine anything so absurd? Sir James Clarke, however, insisted on my packing my portmanteau, and setting off for Mont Blanc, or something of that kind; and I, being heartily tired of the Courts of Probate and Chancery, and Verulam-buildings, Gray’s-Inn, was only too glad to follow his advice, and take my railway-ticket for Geneva.”

“And Switzerland has restored you?”

“In a measure; but not entirely. You can see that I am not yet very strong, when even the pleasing emotion of meeting unexpectedly with my sometime ward is almost too much for my nerves. But you were saying that they had been talking of me here.”

“Yes, at the breakfast-table this morning. When your visit was announced, one of the gentlemen said he had met you in Switzerland, and that you were looking ill — unhappy!”

“Unhappy! Ah, my dear Mrs. Dalton, what a misfortune it is for a man to have a constitutional pallor and a weak digestion! The world will insist upon elevating him into a blighted being, with a chronic wolf hard at work under his waistcoat. I knock myself up by working too hard over a difficult will-case, in which some tiresome old man leaves his youngest son forty thousand pounds upon half a sheet of note-paper; and the world, meeting me in Switzerland, travelling to recruit myself, comes home and writes me down — unhappy. Now, isn’t it too bad? If I were blessed with a florid complexion I might break my heart once in three months without any of my sympathetic friends troubling themselves about the fracture.”

“My dear Mr. Margrave,” said Ellinor — her voice, in spite of herself, trembling a little— “I am really now quite an old married woman; and, presuming on that fact, may venture to speak to you with entire candour — may I not?”

“With entire candour, certainly.” There was the old shiver in the dark eyelashes, and the old droop of the eyelids, as Horace Margrave said this.

“Then, my dear guardian, for I will — I will call you by that old name, which I can remember speaking for the very first time on the day of my poor father’s funeral. O!” she added passionately, “how well I remember that dreary day! I can see you now, as I saw you then, standing in the deep bay-window of the library, in the dear, dear Scottish home, looking down at me so compassionately. I was such a child then. I can hear your low, deep voice, as I heard it on that day, saying to me—‘Ellinor, your dead father has placed a solemn trust in my hands. I am young. I may not be so good a man as, to his confiding mind, I seemed to be; there may be something of constitutional weakness and irresolution in my character which he never suspected; but so deeply do I feel the trust implied in his dying words, that I swear, by my hope in Heaven, by my memory of the dead, by my honour as a gentleman, to discharge the responsibilities imposed upon me as an honest man should discharge them!’”

Ellinor, Ellinor, for pity’s sake!” cried the lawyer in a broken voice, clasping one wasted hand convulsively over his averted face.

“I do wrong,” she said, “to recall that melancholy day; but I wanted to prove to you how your words were impressed upon my mind. You did, you did discharge every duty nobly, honestly, honourably; but now, now you abandon me entirely to the husband not of my choice, but imposed upon me by a cruel necessity, and you do all in your power to make us strangers. Yet, guardian — Horace, you are not happy!”

“Not happy!” he echoed, with a bitter laugh. “My dear Mrs. Dalton, this is such childish talk about happiness and unhappiness — two words which are only used in a lady’s novel, in which the heroine is unhappy through two volumes and three-quarters, and unutterably blest in the last chapter. In the practical world we don’t talk about happiness and unhappiness; our phrases are failure and success. A man gets the woolsack, and he is successful; or he tries to earn bread-and-cheese, and fails, and we shrug our shoulders and say that he is unfortunate. But a happy man, my dear Ellinor — did you ever see one?”

“You mystify me; but you do not answer me.”

“Because to answer you I must first question myself; and, believe me, a man must have considerable courage who can dare to ask himself whether, in this troublesome journey of life, he has taken the right or the wrong road. I confess myself a coward, and implore you not to compel me to be brave.” He rose, looked down at his dress, and exclaimed in his usual society tone, “The first dinner-bell rang a quarter of an hour ago, and behold me still in travelling costume; the sin is yours, Mrs. Dalton. Till dinner, adieu.”

It was difficult to recognise the gloomy and bitter Horace Margrave of the previous half-hour in the brilliant guest who sat on Lady Baldwin’s right hand, and whose incessant flow of witty persiflage kept the crowded dinner-table in a roar of laughter. Ellinor, charmed in spite of herself, beguiled out of herself by the fascination of his animated conversation, wondered at the extraordinary power possessed by this man. So brilliant, so accomplished!” she thought; “so admired and successful, and yet so unhappy!”

That evening’s post brought Ellinor a letter which had been sent to the house in Hertford - street, and forwarded thence to Sir Lionel’s.

She started on seeing the direction, and, taking her letter into the little inner drawing-room, which was still untenanted, she read it by the light of the wax-candles on the chimney-piece. She returned to the long saloon after refolding the letter, crossed over to a small table at which Horace Margrave sat bending over a portfolio of engravings, seated herself near him, and said, “Mr. Margrave, I have just received a letter from Scotland.”

“From Scotland!”

“Yes. From the dear old clergyman, James Stewart; you remember him?”

“Yes; a white-headed old man with a family of daughters, the shortest of whom was taller than I. Do you correspond with him?”

“O, no. It is so many years since I left Scotland, that my old friends seem one by one to have dropped off. I should like so much to have given them a new church at Achindore; but Mr, Dalton of course objected to the outlay of money, and as that is a point I never dispute with him, I abandoned the idea; but Mr. Stewart has written to me this time for a special purpose.”

“And that is?”

“To tell me that my old nurse, Margaret Mackay, has become blind and infirm, and has been obliged to leave her situation. Poor dear old soul — she went into a service in Edinburgh, after my poor father’s death, and I entirely lost sight of her. I should have provided for her long before this had I known where to find her; but now there is no question about this appeal, and I shall immediately settle a hundred a-year upon her, in spite of Mr. Dalton’s rigid and praiseworthy economy.”

“I fancy Dalton will think a hundred a-year too much. Fifty pounds for an old woman in the north of Aberdeenshire would be almost fabulous wealth. But you are so superb in your notions, my dear Ellinor. Hard-headed business men, like Dalton and myself, can scarcely stand against you.”

“Pray do not compare yourself with Mr. Dalton,” said Ellinor coldly.

“I am afraid, indeed, I must not,” he answered with gravity; “but you were saying—”

“That in this matter I will take no refusal; I will listen to no excuses or prevarications. I shall write to my husband by to-morrow’s post. I cannot have an answer till the next day. If that answer should be either a refusal or an excuse, I know what course to take.”

“And that course—”

I will tell you what it is when I receive Mr. Dalton’s reply. But I am unjust to him,” she said; “he cannot refuse to comply with this request.”

Three days after this conversation, just as the half-hour bell had rung, and as Sir Lionel’s visitors were hurrying off to their dressing-rooms, Ellinor laid her hand lightly on Horace Margrave’s arm, and said, Pray let me speak to you for a few minutes. I have received Mr. Dalton’s answer to my letter.”

“And that answer?” he asked as he followed her into the little room communicating with the conservatory.

Is, as you suggested it might be, a refusal.”

“A refusal!” Mr. Margrave elevated his eyebrows slightly, but seemed by no means surprised at the intelligence.

“Yes; a refusal. He dares not even attempt an excuse, or invent a reason for his conduct. Forty pounds a-year, he says, will be a competence for an old woman in the north of Scotland, where very few ministers of the Presbyterian church have a larger income. That sum he will settle on her immediately, and he sends me a cheque for the first half-year; but he will settle no more, nor will he endeavour to explain motives which are always misconstrued. What do you think of his conduct?”

As she spoke, the glass door which separated the room from the conservatory swung backwards and forwards in the autumn breeze which blew in through the outer door of the conservatory. The day had been unusually warm for the time of year, and this outer door had been left open.

“My dear Ellinor,” said Horace Margrave, “if anyone should come into the conservatory, they might hear us talking of your husband.”

“Everyone is dressing,” she answered carelessly. “Besides, if anyone were there, they would scarcely be surprised to hear me declare my contempt for Henry Dalton. The world does not give us credit for being a happy couple.”

“As you will; but I am sure I heard someone stirring in that conservatory. But no matter. You ask me what I think of your husband’s conduct in refusing to allow a superannuated nurse of yours more than forty pounds a-year? Don’t think me a heartless ruffian, if I tell you that I think he is perfectly right.”

“But to withhold from me my own money! to fetter my almsgiving! to control my very charities! I might forgive him if he refused me a diamond necklace or a pair of ponies; but in this matter, in which my affection is concerned, to let his economy step in to frustrate my earnestly-expressed wishes — it is too cruel.”

My dear Mrs. Dalton, like all very impetuous and warmhearted people, you are rather given to jump at conclusions. Mr. Dalton, you say, withholds your own money from you. Now, your own money — with the exception of the Arden estate, which he sold within a year of your marriage — happens to have been entirely invested in the Three per Cents. Now, suppose — mind, I haven’t the least reason to suppose that such a thing has ever happened, but for the sake of putting a case — suppose Henry Dalton, as a clever and enterprising man of business, should have been tempted to speculate with some of your money?”

“Without consulting me?”

“Without consulting you. Decidedly. What do women know of speculation?”

“Mr. Margrave, if Henry Dalton has done this, he is no longer a miser, but he is — a cheat. The money bequeathed to me by my uncle was mine: to be shared with him, it is true, but still mine. No sophistry, no lawyer’s quibble, could ever have made it his. If, then, he has, without my consent or knowledge, speculated with that money, he is a dishonest man. Ah, Horace Margrave, you, who have noble blood in your veins — you, who are a gentleman, an honourable man — what would you think of Henry Dalton, if this were possible?”

“Ellinor Dalton, have you ever heard of the madness men have christened gambling? Do you know what a gambler is? Do you know what the man feels who hazards his wife’s fortune, his widowed mother’s slender pittance, his helpless children’s inheritance, the money that should pay for his son’s education, his daughter’s dowry, the hundreds due to his trusting creditors, or the gold intrusted to him by a confiding employer, — on the green cloth of a West-end gaming-table? Do you think that at that mad moment, when the glaring lights above the table dazzle his eyes, and the piles of gold heave up and down upon the green baize, and the croupier’s voice crying, ‘Make your game!’ is multiplied by a million, and deafens his bewildered ear like the clamour of all the fiends; do you think at that moment that he ever supposes he is going to lose the money? No; he is going to double, to treble, to quadruple it; to multiply every guinea by a hundred, and to take it back to the starving wife or the anxious children, and cry, ‘Was I so much to blame, after all?’ Have you ever stood upon the Grand Stand at Epsom, and seen the white faces of the betting-men, and heard the roar of the eager voices at the last rush for the winning-post? Every man upon that crowded stand, every creature upon that crowded course — from the great magnate of the turf, who stands to win a quarter of a million, to the wretched apprentice-lad, who has stolen half-a-crown from the till to put it upon the favourite — believes that he has backed a winning horse. That is the great madness of gaming; that is the terrible witchcraft of the gambling-house and the ring; and that is the miserable hallucination of the man who speculates with the fortune of another. Pity him, Ellinor. If the weak and wicked are ever worthy of the pity of the good, that man deserves your pity.” He had spoken with an energy unusual to him, and he sank into a chair, half-exhausted by his unwonted vehemence.

“I would rather think the man whom I am forced to call my husband a miser than a cheat, Mr. Margrave,” Ellinor said coldly; “and I am sorry to learn, that if he were indeed capable of such dishonour, his crime would find an advocate in you.”

“You are pitiless, Mrs. Dalton,” said Horace Margrave, after a pause. God help the man who dares to wrong you!”

“Do not let us speak of Henry Dalton any longer, Mr. Margrave. I told you that if he should refuse this favour, this — this right, I had decided on my course.”

“You did; and now, may I ask what that course is?”

“To leave him.”

“Leave him!” he exclaimed anxiously.

“Yes; leave him in the possession of the money which is so dear to him. He can never have cared for me. He has refused my every request, frustrated my every wish, devoted every hour of his life, not to me, but to his profession. My aunt will receive me. I shall leave this place to-night, and leave London for Paris to-morrow morning.”

“What will the world say of such a step, Ellinor?”

Let the world judge between us. What can the world say of me? I shall live with my aunt, as I did before my luckless inheritance came to me. Mr. Margrave — guardian — you will accompany me to Paris, will you not? I am so inexperienced in all these sort of things, so little used to help myself, that I dare not make this journey with my maid alone. You will accompany me?”

“I, Ellinor?”

“Yes; who so fit to protect me as you, to whom, with his dying lips, my father committed my guardianship? For his sake you will do me this service, will you not?”

“Is it a service, Ellinor? Can I be doing you a service in taking you away from your husband?”

“So be it, then,” she said scornfully. “You refuse to help me; I will go alone.”

“Alone?”

“Yes, alone; I go to-night, and alone.”

A crimson flush mounted to Horace Margrave’s pale face, and a vivid light shone in his handsome eyes.

“Alone, Ellinor? No, no,” he said; “my poor child, my ward, my helpless orphan girl, my little Scotch lassie of the good time gone, I will protect you on this journey, place you safely in the arms of your aunt, and answer to Henry Dalton for my conduct. In this, at least, Ellinor, I will be worthy of your dear father’s confidence. Make your arrangements for the journey. You have your maid with you?”

“Yes; Ellis, a most excellent creature. Then to-night, by the mail-train.”

“I shall be ready. You must make your excuses to Lady Baldwin, and leave with as little explanation as possible.

Au revoir!

As Ellinor Dalton and Horace Margrave left the little boudoir, a gentleman in a greatcoat, with a railway-rug flung over his shoulder, strode out on to the terrace through the door of the conservatory, and lighting a cigar, paced for about half an hour up and down the shrubbery at the side of the house, wrapped in thought.

 

Chapter 5
From London To Paris

While dressing, Ellinor gave her maid orders to set about packing, immediately. Ellis, a very solemn and matter-of-fact person, expressed no surprise, but went quietly to work, emptying the contents of wardrobes into capacious trunks, and fitting silver-topped bottles into their velvet-lined cases, as if there were no such thing as hurry or agitation in the world.

To Ellinor Dalton that evening seemed very long. Never had the county families appeared so stupid, or the London visitors so tiresome. The young man from the War Office took her into dinner, and insisted on telling her some very funny story about a young man in another government office, which brilliant anecdote lasted, exclusive of interruptions, from the soup to the dessert, without drawing any nearer the point of the witticism. After the dreary dinner, the eldest daughter of the oldest of the county families fastened herself and a very difficult piece of crochet upon her, and inflicted on her all the agonies of a worsted-work rose, which, as the young lady perpetually declared, would not come right. But however distraite Ellinor might be, Horace Margrave was the Horace of the West-end world. He talked politics with the heads of the county families; stock-exchange with the city-men; sporting-magazine and Tattersall’s with the county swells; discussed the latest débuts at her Majesty’s Theatre with the young Londoners; spoke of Sir John Herschel’s last discovery to a scientific country squire; and of the newest thing in farming-implements to an agricultural ditto; talked compliments to the young country ladies, and the freshest Mayfair scandal to the young London ladies; had, in short, something to say on every subject to everybody, and contrived to please all. And let any man who has tried to do this in the crowded drawing-room of a country house, say whether or not Horace Margrave was a clever fellow.

“By the bye, Horace,” said Sir Lionel, as the lawyer lounged against one corner of the mantelpiece, talking to a group of young men and one rather fast young lady, who had edged herself into the circle, under cover of a brother, much to the indignation of more timid spirits, who sat modestly aloof, furtively regarding Admirable Crichton Margrave, as his friends called him, from distant sofas; “by the bye, my boy, where did you hide yourself all this morning? We sadly wanted you to decide a match at billiards, and I sent people all over the house and grounds in search of you.”

“I rode over to Horton after lunch,” said Horace. “I wanted a few hours there on electioneering business.”

“You’ve been to Horton?” asked Sir Lionel, with rather an anxious expression.

“Yes, my dear Sir Lionel, to Horton. But how alarmed you look! I trust I haven’t been doing anything wrong. A client of mine is going to stand for the place. But surely you’re not going to throw over the county electors, and stand for the little borough of Horton yourself!” he said, laughing.

Sir Lionel looked a little confused, and the county families grew suddenly very grave; indeed, one young lady in pink, who was known by about seven fair confidantes to have a slight tendre for the handsome lawyer, clutched convulsively at the wrist of a younger sister in blue, and listened, with an alarmed face, to the conversation by the chimneypiece.

“Why, how silent everyone has grown!” said Horace, still laughing. “It seems as if I had launched a thunderbolt upon this hospitable hearth, in announcing my visit to the little manufacturing town of Horton. What is it — why is it — how is it?” he asked, looking round with a smile.

“Why,” said Sir Lionel hesitatingly, “the — the truth of the matter — that is — not to mystify you — in short — you know — they, they’ve a fever at Horton. The — the working classes and factory people have got it very badly, and — and — the place is in a manner tabooed. But of course,” added the old man, trying to look cheerful, “you didn’t go into any of the back streets, or amongst the lower classes. You only rode through the town, I suppose; so you’re safe enough, my dear Horace.” The county families simultaneously drew a long breath, and the young lady in pink released her sister’s wrist.

“I went, my dear Sir Lionel,” said Horace, with placid indifference, “into about twenty narrow back streets in an hour-and-a-half, and I talked to about forty different factory hands, for I wanted to find which way the political current set in the good town of Horton. They all appeared extremely dirty, and now, I remember, a good many of them looked ill; but I’m not afraid of having caught the fever, for all that,” he added, looking round at the grave faces of his hearers; “half-a-dozen cigars, and a sharp ten miles’ ride through a bleak, open country must be a thorough disinfectant. If not,” he continued bitterly, “one must die sooner or later, and why not of a fever caught at Horton?”

The young lady in pink had recourse to her sister’s wrist again at this speech.

Horace soon laughed off the idea of danger from his afternoon’s rambles, and, in a few minutes, he was singing a German-student song, and accompanying himself at the piano.

At last the long evening was over, and Ellinor, who had heard nothing from her distant work-table of the conversation about the fever, gladly welcomed the advent of a servant with a tray of glistening candlesticks. As she lit her candle at the side-table, Horace Margrave came over, and lit his own.

“I have spoken to Sir Lionel,” he said; “a carriage will be ready for us in an hour. The London mail does not start till one o’clock, and we shall reach town in time to catch the day service for Paris. But, Ellinor, it is not yet too late. Are you thoroughly determined on this step?”

“Thoroughly,” she said. “I shall be ready in an hour.” Mrs. Dalton’s apartments were at the end of a long corridor; the dressing-room opened out of the bedroom, and the door of communication was ajar as Ellinor entered her room. Her boxes stood ready packed. She looked at them hurriedly, examined the addresses which her maid had pasted upon them, and was about to pass into the dressing-room, when she stopped on the threshold with an exclamation of surprise.

Henry Dalton was seated at the table, with an open portfolio spread before him, writing busily. On a chair by the fire lay his greatcoat, railway-rug, and portmanteau.

He looked up for a moment, calmly and gravely, as Ellinor entered; and then continued writing.

“Mr. Dalton!”

“Yes,” he said, still writing; “I came down by the 5.30 train. I returned sooner than I expected.”

“By the 5.30 train,” she said anxiously; “by the train which leaves London at half-past five, I suppose?”

“By the train which arrives here at half-past five,” answered her husband, without looking up; “or should reach here by that time, rather; for it’s generally five minutes late.”

“You have been here since six o’clock?”

“Since ten minutes to six, my dear Ellinor. I gave my valise to a porter, and walked over from the station in a quarter of an hour.”

“You have been here since six, and have neither told me of your arrival nor shown yourself in the house!”

“I have shown myself to Sir Lionel. I had some very important business to arrange.”

“Important business?” she asked.

“Yes, to prepare for this journey to Paris, which you are so bent upon taking.”

“Mr. Dalton!”

“Yes,” he said quietly, folding and sealing a letter as he spoke, “it is very contemptible, is it not? Coming unexpectedly into the house by the conservatory entrance — which, as you know, to anyone arriving from the station, saves about two hundred yards — I heard involuntarily a part of a conversation, which had so great an effect upon me as to induce me to remain where I was, and voluntarily hear the remainder.”

“A listener?” she said, with a sneer.

“Yes, it is on a par with all the rest, is it not? An avaricious man, a money-grubbing miser; or, perhaps, even worse, a dishonest speculator. O, Ellinor Dalton, if ever the day should come (God forbid that I should wish to hasten it by an hour!) when I shall be free to speak one little sentence, how bitterly you will regret your expressions of to-day! But I do not wish to reproach you: it is our bad fortune — yours and mine — to be involved in a very painful situation, from which, perhaps, nothing but an open rupture could extricate us. You have taken the initiative. You wish to leave me, and return to your aunt in Paris. So be it. Go!”

“Mr. Dalton!”

Something in his manner, in spite of her long-cherished prejudices against him, impressed and affected her, and she stretched out her hand deprecatingly.

“Go, Ellinor! I, too, am weary of this long struggle! this long conflict with appearances which, in spite of myself, condemn me. I am sick to the very heart of these perpetual appeals to your generosity and confidence — tired of trying to win the love of a woman who despises me.”

“But, Henry, if — if — I have misconstrued—” she said, with a tenderness unusual to her in addressing her husband.

“If you have misconstrued—” he exclaimed passionately. “No, Ellinor, no; it is too late now for explanations; besides, I could give you none better than those you have already heard — too late for reconciliation; the breach has been slowly widening for three long years; and to-night I look at you across an impassable abyss, and wonder that I could have ever dreamed, as I have dreamed, of ultimately winning your love.”

There was a break in his voice as he said these last words, and the emotion, so strange to the ordinary manner of the young barrister, melted Ellinor.

“Mr. Dalton! Henry!”

You wish to go to Paris, Ellinor. You shall go. But the man who accompanies you thither must be Henry Dalton.”

“You will take me there?” she asked.

“Yes; and will place you under your aunt’s protection. From that moment you are free of me for ever. You will have about three hundred a-year to live upon. It is not much out of the three thousand, is it?” he said, laughing bitterly; but I give you my honour it is all I can afford, as I shall want the rest for myself.” He looked at his watch. “A quarter-past twelve,” he said. “Dress yourself warmly, Ellinor; it will be a cold journey. I will ring for the people to take your trunks down to the carriage.”

“But, Henry,” she took his hand in hers; “Henry, something in your manner to-night makes me think that I have wronged you. I won’t go to Paris. I will remain with you; I will trust you.”

He pressed the little hand lying in his very gently, and said, looking at her gravely and sadly, with thoughtful blue eyes:

“You cannot, Ellinor! No, no; it is far better, believe me, as it is. I have borne the struggle for three years. I do not think that I could endure it for another day. — Ellis?” he said, as the maid entered the room in answer to his summons, “you will see that this letter is taken to Mr. Margrave immediately, and then see that those trunks are carried downstairs. — Now, Ellinor, if you are ready.”

She had muffled herself hurriedly in a large velvet cloak, while Ellis brought her bonnet and arranged the wraps, which she was too agitated to arrange herself.

She stopped in the hall, and said:

“I must say good-bye to Mr. Margrave, and explain this change in our plans.”

“My letter has done that, Ellinor. You will not speak one word to Horace Margrave while I am beneath this roof.”

“As you will,” she answered submissively.

She had suddenly learned to submit to, if not to respect, her husband.

Henry Dalton was very silent during the short drive to the railway-station; and when they alighted, he said:

You would like to have Ellis with you, would you not?” Ellinor assented, and her maid followed her into the carriage. It seemed as if her husband had been anxious to avoid a tête-à-tête.

Throughout the four hours’ journey Ellinor found herself involuntarily watching the calm, grave face of her husband under the dim carriage-lamp. It was impossible to read any emotion on that smooth brow, or in those thoughtful eyes; but she remembered the agitation in his voice as he spoke to her in her dressing-room.

“He is capable of some emotion,” she thought. “What if after all I should really have wronged him? if there should be some other key to this strange mystery than meanness and avarice? If he really love me, and I have misconstrued him, what a wretch he must think me!”

The next evening, after dark, they arrived in Paris; and Ellinor found herself, after an interval of nearly four years, once more in her aunt’s little drawing-room in the Rue Saint Dominique. She was received with open arms. Henry Dalton smoothed over the singularity of her arrival, by saying that it was a visit of his own suggestion.

“Everything will explain itself at a future time, Ellinor; for the present, let ours be thought a temporary separation. I do not wish to alarm your poor aunt.”

“You shall have your own old bedroom, Ellinor,” said her aunt. “Nothing has been disturbed since you left us — look;” and she opened the door of a little apartment leading out of the drawing-room, in which ormolu clocks, looking-glasses, and pink curtains very much preponderated over more substantial furniture.

“But you are looking very ill, my dear child,” she said anxiously as Ellinor pushed away the untasted refreshment which her aunt had ordered for her,— “you are really looking very ill!”

“My journey has fatigued me a little. I think I’ll go to my room at once, if you will excuse me, aunt; it is nearly eleven o’clock—”

“Yes; and rest will do you more good than anything. Good-night, my darling child. Lisette is getting your room ready.”

Wearied out with a night and day of incessant travelling, Ellinor slept soundly, and, waking the next morning, found her aunt seated by her bedside.

“My dear girl, you look a great deal better after your night’s rest. Your husband would not disturb you to say good-bye, but has left this letter for you.”

“Is Mr. Dalton gone?”

“Yes; he said he had most important business — something about his circuit,” said her aunt vaguely; “but his letter will no doubt explain all. He has made every arrangement for your comfort during your stay with me, dear. He seems a most devoted husband.”

“He is very good,” said Ellinor with a sigh. Her aunt left her, and she opened the letter — opened it with an anxiety she could not repress. She hoped this letter might contain some explanation, some offer of reconciliation.

“MY DEAR ELLINOR, — When you receive these few lines of farewell, I shall be on my way to London. In complying with your wish, and restoring you to the home of your youth, I hope and believe that I have acted for the best. How completely you have misunderstood me, how entirely you have mistaken my motives, you may never know. How much I have suffered from this wretched misunderstanding it would be impossible for me to tell you. But let this bitter past be forgotten; our roads in life henceforth lie separate. Yet if at any future hour you should need an adviser or an earnest and disinterested friend, I entreat you to appeal to no one but “HENRY DALTON.”

The letter fell from her hand. “Now, now I am indeed alone,” she thought.

 

Chapter 6
Horace Margrave’s Confession

Life in the Faubourg St. Germain seemed very dreary to Ellinor after the pleasant London society to which she had been accustomed since her marriage. Her aunt’s visiting-list was very limited. Four or five ancient dowagers, who thought that the glory of the world had departed with the Bourbons, and that France, in the van of the great march of civilisation, was foremost in a demoniac species of dance, leading only to destruction and the erection of a new guillotine upon the Place de la Révolution; two or three elderly but creditably-preserved aristocrats of the ancient régime, whose political principles had stood still ever since the Restoration, and who resembled ormolu clocks of that period, very much ornamented and embellished, but useless as indicators of the flight of time; three or four very young ladies educated in convents, and uninterested in anything except their pet priests and the manufacture of point-lace; and one terrifically bearded and moustachioed gentleman, who had written a volume of poems entitled Clouds and Mists, but who had not yet been so fortunate as to meet with a publisher, — this was about the extent of the visiting circle in the Rue St. Dominique; and for this circle Ellinor’s aunt set apart a particular day, on which she was visible in conjunction with eau sucrée, rather weak coffee, and wafer-biscuits.

The first day of Ellinor’s visit happened to be the day of her aunt’s reception, and it seemed to her as if the tiresome hours would never wear themselves out, or the equally tiresome guests take their departure. She could not help remembering how different everything would have been had Horace Margrave been present. How he would have fought the battle of the tiers état with the white-headed old partisans of the departed noblesse; how he would have discussed and critically analysed Lamartine’s odes with the young ladies from the convent; how he would have flattered the vanity of the bearded poet, and regretted the Bourbons with the faded old dowagers. But he was away — gone out of her life, perhaps, entirely. “I shall never see him again,” she said; “that kind guardian in whose care my father left me.”

The next day she went with her aunt to the Louvre to see the improvements that had been made beneath the sway of that new ruler who had already begun to change brick into marble, or at least into stucco. The pictures only wearied her; the very colouring of the Rubenses seemed to have lost half its glowing beauty since she had last seen them; and Marie De’ Medici, florid and resplendent, bored her terribly. Many of the recent acquisitions she thought overrated, and she hurried her aunt away from the splendid exhibition before they had been there an hour. She made a few purchases in the Rue de la Paix; and loitered for a little time at a milliner’s in the Rue de l’Echelle, choosing a bonnet, and then declared herself thoroughly tired out with the morning’s exertions.

She threw herself back in the carriage, and was very silent as they drove home; but suddenly, as they turned from the Rue de Rivoli into the quadrangle of the Louvre, they passed close to a hackney-coach in which a gentleman was seated, and Ellinor, starting up, cried out, “It was Mr. Margrave! Did you not see him, aunt? He has just this moment passed us in a hackney-coach.” She pulled the check-string violently as she spoke, and her aunt’s coachman stopped; but Horace Margrave was out of sight, and the vehicle in which he was seated lost among the crowd of carriages of the same description rattling up and down the bustling street.

“Never mind, dear,” said Miss Beauchamp, as Ellinor let down the carriage-window, and looked eagerly out; “if you are not mistaken in the face of the person who passed us, and it really is Horace Margrave, he is sure to call upon us immediately.”

“Mistaken in my guardian’s face! No, indeed. But of course he will call, as you say, aunt.”

“Yes; he will call this evening, most likely. He knows how seldom I go out.”

All that evening and all the next morning Mrs. Dalton constantly expected to hear the lawyer’s name announced; but he did not come. “He had important business to transact yesterday, perhaps,” she thought; “and he may be employed this morning; but in the evening he is sure to call.”

After dinner she sat by the low wood fire in Miss Beauchamp’s drawing-room, turning over the leaves of a book which she had vainly endeavoured to read, and looking every moment at the old buhl clock over the chimney; but the evening slowly dragged itself through, and still no Horace Margrave. She expected him on the following day, but again only to be disappointed; and in this manner the week passed, without bringing any tidings of him.

“He must have left Paris!” she thought; “left Paris, without once calling here to see me. Nothing could better testify his indifference,” she added bitterly. “It was no doubt only for my father’s sake that he ever pretended any interest in the friendless orphan girl.”

The following week, Ellinor went with her aunt once or twice to the Opera, and to two or three reunions in the Faubourg, at which her handsome face and elegant manners made some sensation; but still there were no tidings of Horace Margrave. “If he had been in Paris, we should most likely have seen him at the Opera,” thought Ellinor.

That week elapsed, and on the Sunday evening Mrs. Dalton sat alone in her own room, writing letters to friends in England, when she was interrupted by a summons from her aunt. Someone wanted her in the drawing-room immediately.

Someone in the drawing-room who wanted to see her! Could it be her guardian at last?

“A lady or a gentleman?” she asked of the servant who brought her aunt’s message.

“A lady — a sister of charity.”

She hurried into the drawing-room, and found a sister of charity in conversation with Miss Beauchamp.

“My dear Ellinor, this lady wishes you to accompany her on a visit to a sick person; a person whom you know, but whose name she is forbidden to reveal. What can this mystery mean?”

“A sick person who wishes to see me?” said Ellinor. “But I know so few people in Paris; no one likely to send for me.”

“If you can trust me, madame,” said the nun, “and if you will accompany me on my visit to this person, I believe your presence will be of great service. The mind of the invalid is, I regret to say, in a very disturbed state, and you only, I imagine, will be able, under Heaven and the Church, to give relief to that.”

“I will come,” said Mrs. Dalton.

“But, Ellinor—” exclaimed her aunt anxiously.

“If I can be of any service, my dear aunt, it would be most cruel, most cowardly, to refuse to go.”

“But, my dear child, when you do not know the person to whom you are going.”

“I will trust this lady,” answered Ellinor, “and I will go. — I will put on my bonnet and shawl, and join you, madame,” she added to the nun, as she hurried from the apartment.

“When these girls once get married, there’s no managing them,” murmured Miss Beauchamp, as she folded her thin white hands, bedecked with old-fashioned rings, resignedly. “Pray do not let them detain her long,” she continued aloud, to the sister of charity, who sat looking gravely into the few embers in the little English grate. “I shall suffer the most excruciating anxiety till I see her safe home again.”

“She will be perfectly safe with me, madame.”

“Now, madame, I am quite at your service,” said Ellinor, reëntering the room.

In a few minutes they were seated in a hackney-coach, and rattling through the quiet faubourg.

“Are we going far?” asked Ellinor of her companion.

“To Meurice’s Hotel.”

“To Meurice’s? Then the person I am going to see is not a resident in Paris?”

“No, madame.”

Who could it be? Not a resident in Paris. Someone from England, no doubt. Her husband, or Horace Margrave?

These were the only two persons who presented themselves to her mind; but in either case, why this mystery?

They reached the hotel, and the sister of charity herself led the way upstairs into an enclosed hall on the third story, where she stopped suddenly at the door of a small sitting-room, which she entered, followed by Ellinor.

Two gentlemen, evidently medical men, stood talking in whispers, in the embrasure of the window. One of them looked up as the two women entered, and to him the nun said, “Your patient, Monsieur Delville?”

“He is quieter, Sister Louise. The delirium has subsided; he is now quite himself; but very much exhausted,” replied the physician. “Is this the lady?” he asked, looking at Ellinor.

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Madame,” said the doctor, “will you favour me with a few moments’ conversation?”

“With pleasure, monsieur. But first, let me implore you, one word. This sick person, for mercy’s sake, tell me his name!”

“That I cannot do, madame; his name is unknown to me.”

“But the people in the hotel?”

“Are also ignorant of it. His portmanteau has no address. He came most probably on a flying visit; but he has been detained here by a very alarming illness.”

“Then let me see him, monsieur. I cannot endure this suspense. I have reason to suppose that this gentleman is a friend who is very dear to me. Let me see him, and then I shall know the worst.”

“You shall see him, madame, in ten minutes. — Monsieur Vernot, will you prepare the patient for an interview with this lady?”

The second doctor bowed gravely, and withdrew into an inner apartment, closing the door carefully behind him.

“Madame,” said Monsieur Delville, “I was called in, only three days ago, to see the person lying in the next room. My colleague had been for some time attending him through a very difficult case of typhus fever. A few days ago the case became still more complicated and difficult by an affection of the brain which supervened, and Monsieur Vernot considered it his duty to call in another physician. I was therefore summoned. I found the case, as my colleague had found it, an exceptional one. There was not only physical weakness to combat, but mental depression — mental depression of so marked a character that both Monsieur Vernot and myself feared that, should we even succeed in preserving the life of the patient, we might fail in saving his reason.”

“How dreadful, how dreadful!” murmured Ellinor.

“During the three days and nights in which I have attended him,” continued the doctor, “we have not succeeded until this evening in obtaining an interval of consciousness; but throughout the delirium our patient has perpetually dwelt upon two or three subjects, which, though of a different character, may be by some chain of circumstances connected into the one source of his great mental wretchedness. Throughout his wanderings one name has been incessantly upon his lips.”

“And that name is—”

“Ellinor Dalton.”

“My own name.”

“Yes, madame, your name, coupled with perpetual entreaties for pardon; for forgiveness of a great wrong — a wrong done long since, and artfully concealed—”

“A wrong done! If this gentleman is the person I suspect him to be, he never was anything but the truest friend to me. But, for pity’s sake, let me see him. This suspense is unbearable.”

“One moment, madame. I had some difficulty in finding you; but mentioning everywhere the name of the lady of whom I was in search, I fortunately happened to make the inquiry of a friend of Miss Beauchamp. This good, devoted Sister Louise, here, was ready to set out immediately on her errand of mercy, and I thought that you might feel, perhaps, more confidence in her than in me.”

At this moment the door of communication between the two apartments was softly opened, and Monsieur Vernot returned.

“I have prepared the patient for your visit, madame,” he said; “but you must guard against a shock to your own feelings in seeing him. He is very ill.”

“In danger?” asked Ellinor.

“Unhappily, yes — in imminent danger!”

Throughout the brief interview with the physician Ellinor Dalton had said to herself,— “Whatever it is that must be endured by me, I will bear it bravely; for his sake I will bear it bravely.” Her face was white as death — the firm, thin lips rigidly locked over the closely-shut teeth — the mournful gray eyes tearless and serene; but her heart beat so loudly, that she seemed to hear its every pulsation in the stillness of the room.

Her worst presentiments were realised.

Horace Margrave lay with his head thrown back upon the piled-up pillows, and his attenuated hand stretched listlessly upon the dark silk counterpane. His head was bound with wet linen, over which his nurse had tied a handkerchief of scarlet, whose vivid hue made his ashen face still more ghastly. His dark eyes had lost the dreamy expression usual to them, and had the feverish lustre of disease. They were fixed, with a wild haggard gaze, upon the door through which Ellinor entered.

“At last!” he said, with an hysterical cry; “at last!” Ellinor sank on her knees by his bedside, and said to him, very quietly, “Horace, what is this? Why do I find you thus?”

He fixed his haggard eyes upon her, as he answered, “What is it, Ellinor! Shall I tell you?”

“Yes, yes; if you can tell me without unnerving yourself.”

“Unnerving myself!” he cried, with a bitter laugh. “Unnerve myself — look at that!” He stretched out one thin, semitransparent hand, which trembled like an aspen-leaf, until he let it fall lifelessly upon the quilt. “For four years, Ellinor, I have been slowly burning out my life in one long nervous fever. And you tell me not to unnerve myself!”

He gave a restless, impatient sigh, tossed his weary head back upon the pillow, and turned his face to the wall.

Ellinor Dalton looked round the room in which this all accomplished, admired, and prosperous Horace Margrave had lain for eleven dreary days, eleven painful nights.

It was a small apartment, comfortably furnished, and heated by a stove. On the table by the bedside a Book of Hours lay open, with a rosary thrown across the page where the reader had left off. Near this was an English Testament, also lying open. The nun who had been nursing Horace Margrave had procured this English Gospel, in hopes that he would be induced to read it. But the sick man, when sensible, spoke to her in French; and when she implored him to see a priest, refused, with an impatient gesture, which he repeated when she spoke to him of a Protestant clergyman, whom she knew, and could summon to him.

The dim lamp was shaded from the eyes of the invalid by a white porcelain screen, which subdued the light, and cast great shadows of the furniture upon the walls of the room.

He lay for some time quite still, with his face averted; but by the incessant nervous motion of the hand lying upon the counterpane, Mrs. Dalton knew that he was not asleep.

The doctor opened the door softly, and looked in.

“If he says anything to you,” he whispered to Ellinor, “hear it quietly; but do not ask him any questions; and, above all, betray no agitation.”

She bowed her head in assent, and the physician closed the door.

Suddenly Horace Margrave turned his face to her, and, looking at her with earnest scrutinising eyes, said:

“Ellinor Dalton, you ask me what this means. I will tell you. The very day before you left England a strange chance led me into the heart of a manufacturing town — a town which was being ravaged by typhus fever; I was in a very weak state of health, and, as might be expected, I caught this fever. I was warned, when it was perhaps not yet too late to have taken precautions which might have saved me, but I would not take those precautions. I was too great a coward to commit suicide. Some people say a man is too brave to kill himself; I was not, but I was too much a coward. Life was hateful, but I was afraid to die. Yet I would not avert a danger which had not been my own seeking: let the fever kill me, if it would. Ellinor, my wish is fast being accomplished. I am dying.”

“Horace, Horace!” She took his wasted hand in hers, and pressed it to her lips.

He drew it away as if he had been stung.

“For God’s sake, Ellinor, no tenderness! That I cannot bear. For four years you have never seen me without a mask. I am going to let it fall. Henceforward you will only think of me with scorn and detestation.”

“Scorn you, Horace — never!”

He waved his hand impatiently, as if to wave away protestations that must soon be falsified.

““Wait,” he said; “you do not know.” Then, after a brief pause, he continued, “Ellinor, I have not been the kindest or the most tender of guardians, have I, to my beautiful young ward? You reproached me with my cold indifference one day soon after your marriage, in the little drawing-room in Hertford-street.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember that. Yes, Ellinor. There are few words spoken by your lips which I do not remember, together with the tone in which they were spoken, and the place where I heard them. I say, I have not been a kind or affectionate guardian — have I, Ellinor?”

“You were so once, Horace,” she said.

“I was so once! When?”

“Before my uncle left me that wretched fortune.”

That wretched fortune — yes, that divided us at once and for ever. Ellinor, there were two reasons for this pitiful comedy of coldness and indifference. Can you guess one of them?”

“No,” she answered.

“You cannot? I affected an indifference I did not feel, or pretended an apathy which was a lie from first to last, because I loved you with the whole strength of my heart and soul, from the first to the last.”

“O, Horace, Horace, for pity’s sake!” She stretched out her hands imploringly, as if she would prevent the utterance of the words which seemed to break her heart.

“Ellinor, when you were seventeen years of age, you had no thought of succeeding to your uncle’s property. It would have been, upon the whole, a much more natural thing for him to have left it to his adopted son, Henry Dalton. Your father fully expected that he would do so. I expected the same. Your father intrusted me with the custody of your little income, and I discharged my trust honestly. I was a great speculator; I dabbled with thousands, and cast down heavy sums every day as a gambler throws down a card upon the gaming-table; and to me your mother’s little fortune was so insignificant a trust that its management never gave me a moment’s thought or concern. At this time I was going on in a fair way to become a rich man — in fact, was a rich man; and at this time I was an honourable man. I loved you — loved you as I never believed I could love — my beautiful, innocent ward. How could it well be otherwise? I am not a coxcomb, Ellinor, but I dared to say to myself, ‘I love, and am beloved again.’ Those dark-gray eyes had told me the secret of a girl’s confiding heart, and I thought myself more than happy, only too deeply blest. O, my darling, my darling, if I had spoken then!”

Mrs. Dalton’s face was buried in her hands as she knelt by his pillow, and she was sobbing aloud.

“There was time enough, I said. This, Ellinor, was the happiest period of my life. Do you remember our quiet evenings in the Rue St. Dominique, when I left business and business cares behind me in Verulam-buildings, and ran over here to spend a week in my young ward’s society? Do you remember the books we read together? Good heavens, there is a page in Lamartine’s odes which I can see before me as I speak! I can see the lights and shadows which I taught you to put under the cupola of a church in Munich which you once painted in water-colours. I can recall every thought, every word, every pleasure, and every emotion of that sweet and tranquil time in which I hoped and believed that you, Ellinor, would be my wife.”

She lifted her face, blotted by her tears, looked at him for one brief instant, and then let her head fall again upon her clasped hands.

“Your uncle died, Ellinor, and this airy castle, which I had reared with such confidence, was shattered to the ground. The fortune was left to you on condition that you should marry Henry Dalton. Women are ambitious. You would scarcely resign such a fortune. You would marry young Dalton. This was the lawyer’s answer to the all-important question. But those tender gray eyes, looking up shyly from under their dark lashes, had told a sweet secret, and perhaps your generous heart might count this fortune a small thing to cast away for the sake of the man you loved. This was the lover’s answer; and I hoped still to win my darling. You were not to be made acquainted with the conditions of your uncle’s will until you attained your majority. You were, at the time of his death, not quite twenty years of age; there was therefore an entire year in which you would remain ignorant of the penalties attached to this unexpected wealth. In the mean time I, as sole executor (your uncle, you see, trusted me most entirely), had the custody of the funded property bequeathed to you.

“I have told you, Ellinor, that I was a speculator. My profession threw me in the way of speculation. Confident in the power of my own intellect, I staked my fortune on the wonderful hazards of the year ’46. I doubled that fortune, trebled, quadrupled it, and, when it had grown to be four times its original bulk, I staked it again. It was out of my hands, but it was invested in, as I thought, so safe a speculation, that it was as secure as if it had never been withdrawn from consols. The railway company of which I was a director was one of the richest and most flourishing in England. My own fortune, as I have told you, was entirely invested, and was doubling itself rapidly. As your uncle’s trustee, as your devoted friend, your interests were dearer to me than my own.

Why should I not speculate with your fortune, double it, and then say to you, ‘See, Ellinor, here are two fortunes of which you are the mistress; one you owe to Henry Dalton, under the conditions of your uncle’s will; the other is yours alone. You are rich. You are free, without any sacrifice, to marry the man you love; and this is my work’? This was what I thought to have said to you at the close of the great year of speculation, 1846.”

“O Horace, Horace, I see it all. Spare yourself, spare me. Do not tell me any more.”

“Spare myself? No, Ellinor, not one pang; I deserve to drain my bitter cup to the dregs. You were right in what you said in the boudoir at Sir Lionel’s. The money was not my own; no sophistry, no ingenious twisting of facts and forcing of conclusions, could ever make it mine. How do I know even now that your interest was really my only motive? How do I know that it was not, indeed, the gambler’s guilty madness which impelled me to my crime? How do I know — how do I know? Enough, the crash came; my fortune and yours were together ingulfed in that vast whirlpool; and I, the trusted friend of your dead father, the conscientious lawyer, whose name had become a synonym for honour and honesty — I, Horace Welmoden Margrave, only lineal descendant of the royalist Captain Margrave, who perished at Worcester, fighting for his king and the honour of his noble race — I knew myself to be a cheat and a swindler.”

“No, no, Horace. You were only mistaken.”

“Mistaken, Ellinor! Yes, that is one of the words invented by dishonest men to slur over their dishonesty. The fraudulent banker whose ruin involves the ruin of thousands is, after all, his friends say, only mistaken. The clerk who robs his employer in the insane hope of ultimately restoring what he abstracts is, as his counsel pleads to soft-hearted jurymen with sons of their own, only mistaken. The speculator who plays the great game of commercial hazard with another man’s money, he, too, dares to look at the world with a piteous face, and cry, ‘Alas, I was only mistaken!’ No, Ellinor, I have never put in that plea. From the moment of that dreadful crash, which changed hope to despair, and prosperity to desolation, I have at least tried to look my fate in the face. But I have not borne all my own burdens, Ellinor. The weight of my crime has fallen upon the shoulders of Henry Dalton.”

“Henry Dalton, my husband!”

“Yes, Ellinor, your husband, Henry Dalton, the truest and most generous of men.”

“You praise him so much,” she said rather bitterly.

“Yes, Ellinor, I am weak enough and wicked enough to feel a cruel pain in being compelled to do so; it is the one poor reparation I can make him. God knows I have done him enough injury.”

The exertion of talking for so long a time had completely exhausted the dying man, and he fell back, half fainting, upon the pillows. The sister of charity, summoned from the next apartment by Ellinor, gave him a restorative; and in low tremulous accents he continued:

“From the moment of my ruin, Ellinor, I felt and knew that you were lost to me. I could bear this; I did not think my life would be a long one. Vogue la galère! Let it go on its dark way to the end. I say I could bear this, but I could not bear the thought of your contempt, your aversion; that punishment would have been too bitter. I could not come to you, and say, ‘I love you, I have always loved you; I love you as I never before loved, as I never hoped to love again; but I am a swindler and a cheat, and you can never be mine.’ No, Ellinor, I could not do this; and the day of your majority was close at hand. Some step must be taken, and the only thing that could save me from your contempt was the generosity of Henry Dalton.

“I had heard a great deal of your uncle’s adopted son, and I had met him very often at Arden; I knew him to be as true-hearted a man as ever lived. I determined, therefore, to throw myself upon his generosity, and to reveal all. ‘He will despise me, but I can bear his contempt better than the scorn of the woman I loved.’ I said this to myself, and one night — the night after Henry Dalton had first seen you, and had been already won by your grace and beauty — I took him to my chambers in Verulam-buildings, and after binding him to secrecy, told him all.

“You now understand the cruel position in which this young man was placed. The fortune, of which he was supposed to become possessor on marrying you, was a thing of the past. You were penniless, except, indeed, for the hundred a-year coming to you from your mother’s property. His solemn oath forbade him to reveal this to you; and for three years he endured your contempt, and was silent. Judge now of the wrong I have done him. Judge now the noble heart which you have tortured.”

“O Horace, Horace, what misery this money has brought upon us!”

“No, Ellinor. What misery one deviation from the straight road of honour has brought upon us! Ellinor, my dearest, my only beloved, can you forgive the man who has so truly loved, yet so deeply injured you?”

“Forgive you!”

She rose from her knees, and smoothing the ruffled hair from his forehead with tender, pitying hands, looked him full in the face.

“Horace,” she said, “when, long ago, you thought I loved you, you read my heart aright; but the depth and truth of that love you could never read. Now, now that I am the wife of another, another to whom I owe so very much affection in reparation of the wrong I have done him, I dare tell you without wrong to him, how much I loved you. And you ask me if I can forgive! As freely as I would have resigned this money for your sake, can I forgive you for the loss of it. This confession has set all right. I will be a good wife to Henry Dalton, and you and he may be sincere friends yet.”

“What, Ellinor, do you think that, did I not know myself to be dying, I could have made this confession? No, you see me now under the influence of stimulants which give me a false strength; of excitement which is strong enough to master even death. To-morrow night, Ellinor, the doctors tell me, there will no longer be in this weary world a weak, vacillating, dishonourable wretch called Horace Margrave.”

He stretched out his attenuated hands, drew her towards him, and imprinted one kiss upon her forehead.

“The first and the last, Ellinor,” he said. “Good-bye.” His face changed to a deadlier white, and he fell back, fainting.

The physician, peeping in at the half-open door, beckoned to Ellinor:

“You must leave him at once, my dear madame,” he said. “Had I not seen the disturbed state of his mind, I should never have permitted this interview.”

“O monsieur, tell me, can you save him?”

“Only by a miracle, madame; a miracle far beyond medical skill.”

“You yourself, then, have no hope?”

“Alas, no, madame!”

She bowed her head. The physician took her hand in his and pressed it with a fatherly tenderness, looking at her earnestly and mournfully.

“Send for me to-morrow,” she said imploringly.

“I will send you tidings of his state. Adieu!”

She bent her head once more, and, without another word, hurried from the room.

The following morning, as she was seated in her own apartment, she was once more summoned to the drawingroom.

The sister of charity was there, talking to her aunt. They both looked grave and thoughtful, and glanced anxiously at Ellinor as she entered the room.

“He is worse?” said Ellinor to the sister, before a word had been spoken.

“Unhappily, yes. Madame, he is—”

“O, do not tell me any more! For pity’s sake, for pity’s sake!” she exclaimed.

She walked to the window, and stood there, absent and meditative, looking with tearless eyes into the street below, and out at the cheerless gray of the autumn sky.

She was thinking how strange the world looked to her now that Horace Margrave was dead.

* * * * * * * * * * *

They buried Horace Margrave in the Cemetery of Père la Chaise. There had been some thoughts of conveying his ashes to his native country, that they might rest in the parish church of Margrave, a little village in Westmoreland, the chancel of which church was decorated with a recumbent statue of Algernon Margrave, cavalier, who fell at Worcester fight; but as the deceased had no nearer relations than a few second cousins in the army and the church, and a superannuated admiral, his great-uncle, and as it was furthermore discovered that the accomplished solicitor of Verulam-buildings, Gray’s-Inn, had left not a penny behind him, the idea was very quickly abandoned, and the last remains of the admired Horace were left to decay in a foreign grave.

It was never fully known who caused the simple monument which ultimately adorned his resting-place to be erected. It was a plain block of marble; no pompous Latin epitaph, or long list of virtues, was thereon engraved; but a half-burned torch, reversed, was sculptured at the bottom of the tablet, and from the smoke of the expiring torch a butterfly mounted upwards. Above this design were inscribed the name and age of the deceased.

The night following the day of Horace Margrave’s funeral, Henry Dalton was seated, hard at work, at his chambers in the Temple.

The light of the office-lamp, falling upon his quiet face, revealed a mournful and careworn expression not usual to him.

He looked ten years older since his marriage with Ellinor.

He had fought the battle of life and lost, — lost in that great battle which some hold so lightly, but which to others is an earnest fight, — lost in the endeavour to win the wife he had so tenderly loved.

He had now nothing left to him but his profession, — no other ambition, no other hope.

“I will work hard,” he thought, “that she, though separated from me for ever, may still derive every joy of those poor joys which money can buy, from my labour.”

He had heard nothing of Horace Margrave’s journey to Paris, his illness, or his death. He had no hope of being released from the oath which bound him to silence — to silence which he had sworn to preserve so long as Horace Margrave lived.

Tired, but still persevering, and absorbed in a difficult case which needed all his professional acumen, he read and wrote on, until past eleven o’clock.

Just as the clocks were chiming the half hour after eleven, the bell of his outer door rang loudly, as if pulled by an agitated hand.

His chambers were on the first floor; on the floor below were those of a gentleman who always left at six o’clock.

“I do not expect anyone at such an hour; but it may be for me,” he thought.

He heard his clerk open the door, and went on writing without once lifting his head.

Three minutes afterwards, the door of his own office opened, and a person entered unannounced. He looked up suddenly. A lady dressed in mourning, with her face hidden by a thick veil, stood near the door.

“Madame,” he said with some surprise, “may I ask—”

The late visitor came hurriedly from the door by which she stood, lifted her veil, and fell on her knees at his feet.

“Ellinor!”

“Yes. I am in mourning for Horace Margrave, my unhappy guardian. He died a week ago in Paris. He told me all. Henry, my friend, my husband, my benefactor, can you forgive me?”

Henry Dalton passed his hand rapidly across his eyes, and turned his face away from her.

Presently he raised her in his arms, and drew her to his breast.

“Ellinor,” he cried in a broken voice, “I have suffered so long and so bitterly that I can scarcely bear this great emotion. My dearest, my ever-beloved wife, are we indeed at last set free from the miserable secret which has blighted our lives? Horace Margrave—”

“Is dead, Henry. I once loved him very dearly. I freely forgave him the injury he did me. Tell me that you forgive him too.”

“From my inmost heart, Ellinor.”

 

My First Happy Christmas

All the other boys at Dr. Martinet’s, Market Kagster, in the county of York, had friends and relations; all the other boys went home for holidays; all the other boys had mothers, who came to see them, and who cried when they had the measles, and brought them sponge-cakes and oranges, and sent them great hampers, filled to bursting with plum-cakes, almonds and raisins, pork-pies, hardbake, Stilton cheese, dry withered apples, and lovely sleepy pears; all the other boys wrote ceremonious missives to their “honoured parents,” on thick post-paper, documents which were called holiday letters, but which looked like reprieves, or Chancery suits, or indictments for high treason, or last wills and testaments, or something equally awful — all the boys, except the two West-Indian pupils and myself. The two West-Indian pupils never wrote to their parents, because their parents were in Demerara, and I suppose the postage was too expensive; I never wrote to mine because they were —

When I was a very, very little fellow, scarcely able to remember anything, I remember being dressed in black. I remember being taken into a churchyard, in some great city (a churchyard so choked with tombstones that it seemed almost a wonder that they did not overflow the low walls, like a stony spring-tide, and tumble into the street), by a lady, who was very young and, I think, very pretty. I know I liked to look at her, because she was bright and radiant, like some lovely picture, and always seemed as if she would fade away. She, too, was dressed in black. I remember how she sat down by one of the tombstones, and took me in her arms, and told me in a very low voice, for she was crying all the while, that I could never have such friends in the world as were lying buried here; that I could never know such love beneath heaven as was hidden under this little spot of earth; and that if ever, when I grew to be a man, I had any thought of doing a mean or a wicked action, I was to come first to this spot, and read that which was written on this stone, which I could not read now. This lady, I have learned since, was my aunt. Like all the brightest things I have ever known in this world, she vanished from it very soon after this, and I wore black clothes till I was seven years old; and when I was seven years old, I was sent to Dr. Martinet’s at Market Kagster, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Looking back across the waste of many chequered years, I have no fault to find with Dr. Martinet. We were, on the whole, very happy at Market Kagster. We had a great deal of roast mutton; a great deal of boiled mutton; a fair allowance of an innocuous beverage, which was supposed to be milk-and-water; a great deal of propria qua, maribus, “Pinnock’s Goldsmith,”

“Enfield’s Speaker,” haircutting, and church. Twice every Sunday did we march down the centre aisle of St. Mary’s Church, Market Kagster, and twice every Sunday did we take notes of the vicar’s or the curate’s discourse, to be reproduced in our own form, for our evening edification. It is my private opinion, that both the vicar and the curate thoroughly detested us. Imagine four-and-thirty boys glaring at you throughout your discourse, and four-and-thirty pencils scribbling your words on scratchy paper, almost before they left your mouth. That’s what the vicar and the curate had to endure every Sunday from Dr. Martinet’s pews. On the whole, I say, I was not unhappy. During the half-year’s lessons and the half-year’s exercises, the half-year’s propria qua maribus and “Enfield’s Speaker,” bad marks and good marks, stolen feasts in dimly-lighted dormitories, prisoner’s base and fly-the-garter in the great bare playground, I was tolerably happy. But Christmas, that Christmas to which thirty-one out of four-and-thirty boys looked forward with such rapture —

Christmas, which, for those thirty-one young persons, meant home, and love, and roast turkey, and unlimited wedges of rich plum-pudding smothered with brandy-sauce, and inexhaustible brown-paper bags of chestnuts, and piles of golden oranges, and bilious attacks, and kisses under the mistletoe from pretty cousins, and blindman’s buffs, and hunt the slippers, and so many glorious things, which to myself and the two pupils from Demerara were nothing but strange words — Christmas was for me a sad and a bitter time. That genial and ancient allegorical person with rubicund face, snow-white, holly-crowned head, and brave, good-natured smile, was to me an evil-minded demon, who whispered, “For you I am not what I am to other people; I never can be the same to you that I am to other people; I come to you only to remind you of the love that is for ever lost to you; of the home which you have never known; of the dear little sisters and jovial young brothers you have, never had; of the bright fireside by which you have never sat; the kind words you have never heard; the motherly kisses that have never pressed your wretched lips; the tender prayers that have never been whispered above your pillow.” Is it a wonder, then, that I hated Christmas? Is it a wonder that I hated the dismal voices of the carol-singers, and the midnight music of the waits? Is it a wonder that, when, at our breaking-up party, I intoxicated myself with sherry negus, made of eighteenpenny Cape, I did not become joyous and good-humoured in my cups, as the other boys, but was low-spirited and quarrelsome, and apt to give offence to those young gentlemen who insisted upon telling me of the jolly time they meant to have of it this Christmas? I noticed that they were always going to have a jollier Christmas this Christmas than at any previous Christmas; and that, when they returned to school, they used to have high words as to which had most enjoyed himself during the vacation, and would even come to blows on the subject of plum-pudding and mince-pies.

But away they went, away they went. Those who lived in the town were fetched by elder sisters, or aunts or uncles, or fathers or mothers; those who lived at a distance, had the best of it, perhaps, on this occasion, for they went off by the mail-coach, Highflyer, that plied between London and York, and departed from the academy with a flourish of the guard’s horn that went to the inmost hearts of the Demerara pupils and myself. Away they went, and we three little shivering boys were left all alone in the long, bare schoolroom; and we prowled about, told each other ghost-stories, till we dared not let go of each other’s jackets, in the snowy twilight; and scribbled on the other boys’ books; and played dismal games, in which our footsteps echoed in the empty room; and nibbled slate-pencil; and chewed the corners of copy-books; and, above all, talked in whispers of what we would do when we grew to be men, and to have wives and families of our own. We meant to keep a pretty tight hand upon our wives and families, I assure you; and one of the pupils from Demerara went so far as to hint that, if he found his future spouse at all contumacious, he should have recourse to corporal punishment. But we didn’t agree with him, and he was obliged to withdraw his motion.

As a rule, our Christmas-days bore a dismal likeness to each other, but there was one bright exception — one particular Christmas-day I have a special reason for remembering. It was a fine, clear, frosty day; such a Christmas-day as I don’t remember of late years — a day which seems to have gone out of fashion along with blue coats and brass buttons, stagecoaches, watchmen, five-act comedies, and the agricultural interest. A very cold day too, a not-to-be-trifled with, thoroughgoing December day. The West-Indian pupils were as red about the tips of their noses as West-Indian pickles of the Chili nature. We shivered all church-time in the long, bare, empty pew, with the draught from the door cutting the figure of eight between our poor little legs, and we alternately scratched and blew upon the chilblains on our hands, except when the Doctor looked at us, when, by a powerful effort of nature, we sat pretenaturally still, and tried to look as if we defied the elements, and had never shivered in our lives. Now, opposite to our pew was situated the pew of a retired naval officer called Bowster. I have reason to believe that he was a half-pay lieutenant; but I know we all of ns thought, at Dr. Martinet’s, that he was an admiral at the very least, and we considered even that title an insufficient reward for his distinguished services. Drake, Nelson, and Bowster were all we knew of naval heroes; and Bowster was our favourite of the three. If anybody had told us that he had not been present at Trafalgar, or that Nelson could have won that victory without him, or that every man could have done his duty and come up to the expectations of England without him, I do not think that person’s life would have been worth much. We believed, I repeat, in Bowster; he was red, and stout, and jovial, and had a wooden leg, and, except in church, never was seen without a telescope, and displayed the Union Jack on a flagstaff at his country cottage three miles out of Market Kagster. He swore considerably, and talked in a very loud, gruff voice; and, moreover, had the reputation of being able to drink any man in the East Biding under the table, and get up sober himself; so he entirely came up to our ideal of the naval commander, and we worshipped him accordingly. Now, I remarked that on this particular Christmas-day, Admiral (I shall take the liberty of giving him the title which I then thought belonged to him) — Admiral Bowster stared, during the best part of the service, his very hardest — and he was by nature a hard starer — at myself and the West-Indian pupils; and once, when the church was coldest, and the wind was cutting the figure of eight most ferociously in and out between our legs, he (Bowster), in the very middle of the vicar’s sermon, winked deliberately at us three boys. Nobody but a man who had fought hand-to-hand with six Frenchmen at a time, and who had seconded Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, could have done such a thing. My admiring consternation put me into quite a glow of heat, and my chilblains were easier for the rest of the sermon. But this was nothing. Picture my astonishment, and the astonishment of the two pupils from Demerara, when, as we were leaving the churchyard, the great Bowster, after exchanging the compliments of the season with our respected preceptor, suddenly exclaimed, in his most stentorian voice, “Should you have any particular objection, Doctor, to my taking those three young ones home with me?” We were three young ones, but he could not mean us; it was something too deliriously delightful to be believed at the first gasp. We all three held our breaths. “These boys?” said the Doctor interrogatively. “These boys, sir,” replied Bowster affirmatively, giving me such a slap upon the shoulder that I can recall the tingle of it at this moment. “These boys, Doctor. My trap’s waiting for me; I’ll drive them over to my little box, give them their Christmas dinner, and send Jack Longshore home with them before ten to-night. Say yes, if the youngsters would like to go.” If the youngsters would like to go? We were all three crimson with suppressed delight and suspense. It couldn’t be true, even now. Dine with Bowster! Spend Christmas-day with Bowster! No, no; it was too wild a dream. The Doctor said he had no objection. No objection, indeed! no objection to saving three plates of beef, and three wedges of plum-pudding, and three half-pints of the most diminutive beer, by the transaction! I should rather think not.

“Jump in then, boys,” said the noble Bowster, “and I’ll drive you home at such a rate, that you won’t know whether the wind’s hot or cold. Jump in.”

We were at the gate of the churchyard, and everybody was coming out of church, but we set up such a shout of delight as our feeble lungs would allow us, as that most glorious of naval commanders hoisted us into his old rumbling four-wheeled chaise, and with one smack of his whip, and one jerk of the reins, started his fat brown waddling pony into a rapid trot. It was as much as we could do to lift our caps to the Doctor, standing at the churchyard gates, before we were far away on the white country road, flying past the glittering, icicle-fringed hedges, and nodding to the red-faced farmers and fat farmers’ wives driving past us in market-carts, crowded with rosy children, going to spend Christmas-day in the town. Before we were fully alive to the wild rapture of the ride, the ride was over, and we were there. There, at the pretty cottage, with the old-fashioned bow-windows and deep window-seats, the bright-red curtains, and curions cabinets, crowded with South-Sea shells and ocean wonders, stuffed tropical birds and curious seaweeds, Indian china and Chinese ivory boxes, which nobody ever opened, nor which, anybody opening could ever shut. The dear pretty cottage, with the stuffed crocodile in the hall, shot by the gallant Bowster ever so far beyond the second cataract of the Nile; the oil-painting of Bowster and Mrs. Bowster — dead and gone, poor thing, for many a year, as the noble commander told us; the pretty drawing-room, and the snug dining-room, the table glistening with diamond-cut glass and old-fashioned silver; and, above all, Bowster himself, radiant and red, and loud and hearty, stumping here and there with his honoured wooden leg, and telling his pretty niece how his heart had been moved by our red noses and chilly looks in the parish church, and how it had suddenly occurred to him in the middle of the sermon, to take us home with him to dinner; “And that was when I winked at you, boys; that was the reason I winked at you,” the jolly old seaman roared out, as he told his pretty niece and housekeeper (she was very proud of being his housekeeper) to take care of us, while he went to see about the wine.

The last time I was in Market Kagster, I went to look for this dear old cottage, but, alas, it was no more; they were building a great grim Elizabethan workhouse on the site of the old thatched-roofed, gabled, rambling, tumble-down hospitable place; and all I could learn of Admiral Bowster was from a certain stone record in the parish church, set up by his grateful, affectionate, and sorrowful niece.

But, as I tell you of these things, they come back to me, and I am a boy in a jacket again; and here is dear old Bowster coming back to the dining-room, with a bottle in each hand, and another bottle under each arm, and a corkscrew in his mouth. He took the corkscrew out of his mouth, and set to work to use that instrument with a will. “This,” he said, as he drew cork number one, “is Madeira, boys; and Madeira’s a very good thing in its way, especially when it has made the distance between England and Calcutta three times, as this Madeira has, boys; and this, boys, is Port,” he continued, drawing cork number two; “and Port is no such bad stuff, either, when it’s Comet Port of the year 18 — , and has been bought at the sale of a marquis’s cellar; and this, boys,” he added, going on to number three, “is French brandy, as mild as milk, and as pale as East-Indian ale; and number four, boys, is Schiedam; and that’s all, boys, and you shall taste them everyone (to say nothing of the rum-punch my little girl here shall help me to brew by and by) before you go home to-night.”

We drew our breath again; we had heard of that wonderful kingdom in which sucking-pigs run about ready roasted, with knives and forks stuck into their cracklings, but we thought that Admiral Bowster’s cottage rather surpassed it, if anything. And O, the dinner, such a dinner, and such a long dinner! Only the admiral and his pretty niece, with a very young lieutenant, who sat next to her, and had so much to say to her that he didn’t care a bit, foolish fellow, for all the good things smoking before him; only, I say, the admiral, his niece, the young lieutenant, an old navy surgeon, from Market Kagster, and we three boys. Such a dinner! Boast beef — so big a sirloin, that I could not see the admiral sitting behind it, but only heard his voice across it, gruff and loud, making the very bunches of horse-radish shiver with its manly thunder. Boast beef, and boiled turkey with oyster-sauce, and tongue, and a monster plum-pudding all ablaze with burnt brandy, and a great dish of mince-pies, ablaze with more brandy, so that the second course looked like the opening scene in a pantomime, all blue fire and forked flame. And there sat the dear old admiral piling up our plates with first beef, and then turkey, plum-pudding on the top of mince-pies, and mince-pies on a stratum of plum-pudding, and never desisting till we cried out that we had been helped twice to everything, and had unfastened the last button of our waistcoats.

O, such a dinner! We drank Madeira as quite a common beverage before we had done, and every time we drank the admiral’s health, we cried, “Hip, hip, hurrah!” till we made the plates and dishes rattle again. I know the navy surgeon once ventured to suggest that Madeira was rather a trying beverage for schoolboys; but dear old Bowster put him down by asking him whether he disliked Madeira when he was a schoolboy, which retort we thought the very highest order of wit, and applauded till we shook the table, while the admiral went to get another bottle. Good gracious me! we were generally such shy boys, that to say good-day to us was to inflict upon us the greatest moral torture, if you expected us to bid you good-morning in return; but under the influence of Bowster, and Bowster’s Madeira, and Bowster’s plum-pudding and burnt brandy, we became three lions; and we told the company over dessert (as well as we could, with our mouths alternately filled with chestnuts, figs, almonds and raisins, macaroons and oranges) our opinion of Dr. Martinet, and the Latin grammar, and the Martinet mutton, and the great quantity of fat we had to eat, counterbalanced by a minimum of lean; and we expounded our views of life in general, and how we meant to be sailors every one of us; and I know I informed the admiral kindly, that when I had a ship — which of course I should a year or so after entering the navy — I should call it the Bowster, or the Gallant Bowster. And this simple, honest hero-worship, offered from a schoolboy’s happy heart, so gratified the hearty seaman, that he tapped a special bottle of the dead-and-gone Marquis of Something’s port, that we might christen his majesty’s ship, the Gallant Bowster, with all the honours. It was at this stage of the entertainment I began to experience so peculiar a sensation, that I find some little difficulty, at this distance of time, in describing it correctly. In the first place, my ideas of time and space were entirely overthrown, and I had great difficulty in making myself quite clear as to whether to-day was yesterday or to-morrow. Then Bowster — goodness me! how wavy and fluctuating Bowster became in his personal appearance! One moment Bowster would recede from me and from his own mahogany at so rapid a rate, that when I looked at him, I saw him glaring dimly at me from the farthest end of a lane of decanters and black bottles half a mile long. This was rather bewildering; but this was nothing to Bowster, when instead of receding he advanced upon me with a frightful velocity, like a jovial red railway engine, bearing down upon me at the rate of sixty miles an hour. And then the West-Indian pupils! If they would have appeared the same number for two consecutive minutes, I would have forgiven them; but they wouldn’t. One minute there they were, serene and smiling, rather pale, but very happy, and only their normal number, two; the next time I looked their way there were four of them at the least; and three minutes afterwards, these dreadful boys swelled, dilated, and multiplied in such a manner, that I found myself face to face with a closely-packed regiment of yellow-faced and frizzy-haired natives of the island of Demerara, formed in square. I think we went into the drawing-room; and I know that, in crossing the hall, somebody, whose name I forget, fell into a scuttle of coals; and, strange to say, my shins were sore all the evening; and then the admiral’s niece sang us a song, such a sweet pretty song, about love, and truth, and fidelity, which the young lieutenant said was the sweetest song that was ever written; but as she sang, it all of a sudden changed into the “Bay of Biscay,” and there was the dear old admiral leading the chorus, and we singing at the top of our treble voices, how “she lay, all the day, in the bay-ee o-of Bi-iscay, O!” O dear, happy, never-to-be-forgotten Christmas! How many changes and chances have I experienced since that departed time! How many a sad December, how many a bitter grief, to take the brightness out of the glistening holly, and the sweetness out of the rich plum-pudding; to make turkey an abomination, and all the genial, festive sounds so many strokes upon a funeral bell! How many a cruel shock to change the face of that joyous time into a pale and saddened mourning visage, awful to look upon, and far too terrible to recall! But never, while I live, shall I forget that 25th of December, and that glorious old Bowster roaring out the brave seafaring ditty, in his great, honest, bass voice, never more to be heard beneath the stars.

But before he had done singing the “Bay of Biscay,” we were far away on the dark, starless, snowy country road. How we came there I have never to this day discovered; but there we were, huddled close together, and wrapped in one of the admiral’s greatcoats, and driven in the four-wheel chaise by the admiral’s confidential man, Jack Longshore. Mr. Longshore did not say a word to us; and though I sadly wanted to talk to him, and tell him all about his majesty’s ship the Gallant Bowster, somehow the words dried up, as it were, and stuck to my lips, and I couldn’t tell him anything: and after riding for a space of time, which seemed to me something between a century and a century and a half, Longshore pulled up with a sudden jerk, and told me to get out.

He told me to get out. He told me distinctly, this John Longshore, to get out. But, as I remonstrated with him, this was not Dr. Martinet’s, and not only was it not Dr. Martinet’s, but it was the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Market Kagster, and, as I told Longshore, I did not live in the churchyard, and I did not wish to live in the churchyard. Longshore only said again, “Get out,” and though I did not mean to comply with so absurd a request, somehow, in utter despite of myself, I did get out, and stood shivering just inside the gate of the churchyard, while Longshore and the two West-Indian pupils drove off in a flame of fire, and I for the first time noticed that instead of the fat brown pony, Longshore was driving the stuffed crocodile out of Bowster’s hall. They were all gone, and I was alone — alone among the oozy, wet, green, moss-grown, slimy tombstones; not a star in the sky above my head, not the twinkle of a light from the distant High-street of Market Kagster, not the sound of a human voice or the echo of a human footfall to be heard in the still winter’s night. I heard nothing but my own breathing, and the crisp crunch of my own feet on the new-fallen snow. I was only thirteen years of age, I was of a nervous temperament, and knew more ghost-stories than any other boy in the school, so I was rather frightened.

“So you’re come back at last,” he said.

I turned round and looked at him. He was a goblin — rather a good-tempered, easy-going-looking goblin, and he was sitting on the top of a tombstone, with a spade in his hand, and his legs crossed one over the other. I know I wondered how he balanced himself.

“Come back, sir?” I said; for I didn’t quite catch his meaning.

“Come back. Yes, to be sure. Do you think we’re going to put up with this sort of thing?”

I knew he was a goblin, because he was not opaque like the general run of people; he was so transparent in fact, that I read “Sacred to the memory” through the calf of his leg as he talked to me.

“Do you think,” he said, “we can afford to have our boys” — he said most distinctly our boys— “gadding about in this sort of way, and over-eating themselves at old Crowsters’s?”

“I beg your pardon, sir, Bowster’s,” I remonstrated.

“O, very well,” he said rather snappishly; “Bowsters or Crowsters is all one to me; but what I say is this: we can’t have our graves empty in this manner; and we can’t have boys that have been buried on our property gadding about like this.”

“Buried on your property!” I ventured to exclaim. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I’ve never been buried, because” — I hesitated for a good reason— “because I’m not dead.”

The goblin gravedigger burst into a goblin laugh, such a tremendous laugh it was, though he was a little man, that all the urns and funeral decorations in the churchyard danced and rattled to its thunder.

“Not dead! That is a good one. Not dead! Why, don’t you remember dying of the measles in — let me see, what year did you die — I think it was 1803? Yes, it was 1803. Don’t you remember dying of the measles, and coming here to be buried?”

I told him that I couldn’t say that I did.

“You’ve a very short memory,” he said, “and so have many of our tenants. Why, I assure you, we’d an old gentleman buried here a month ago, who was always out, and we only enticed him back by showing him his beautiful new tombstone with a Latin epitaph. But my time is precious,” this goblin gravedigger added, “so tumble in.”

And I looked down in the direction to which the goblin gravedigger looked, and, looking so, looked straight into a deep grave, so deep that I could no more see the bottom of it than I could see through to the antipodes.

“Tumble in,” he said; “that’s your number, forty-seven.”

I think I remonstrated; at least, I know I wanted to remonstrate — but I had a peculiar sensation, which I can only compare to the Highflyer mail-coach, outside and inside passengers, coachman and guard, and four horses — to say nothing of luggage — all lying on my chest, and the outside passengers seemed to be rising in my throat, and I couldn’t speak a word. So I tumbled in, tumbled into forty-seven. Into forty-seven! Into forty-seven millions of square miles of nothing. Into forty-seven trackless realms of space did I, boarder and pupil at Dr. Martinet’s, Market Kagster, fall, on falling into number forty-seven.

“A little salts and senna, and he’ll be all right,” said a voice at the bottom of number forty-seven. It was the voice of Martha Morris, the young person who looked after our linen, mended our socks, and washed our heads at Dr. Martinet’s academy.

I was in bed, in the eight-bedded room, and it was tomorrow morning; and I’d never been to St. Mary’s churchyard at all; and I had been brought home by John Longshore, fast asleep, and safe and sound, but rather the worse for Madeira, port, and rum-punch. But a dose of salts and senna made me all right again, and the admiral promised the Doctor that he would be more cautious another time. And as long as I stayed at Market Kagster, which was for five more years, I spent my Christmas-day at the dear old hospitable cottage, and ate my Christmas dinner off Admiral Bowsters groaning mahogany.

 

Lost And Found

Chapter 1
Picture-dealing

It was a broiling day in August. The sun, blazing in his full summer splendour from early morning until three o’clock in the afternoon, had baked the flags of every street and alley, every square and highway, of the great metropolis; until weary foot-passengers well-nigh suffered the tortures of those martyrs of old who walked over red-hot ploughshares, without any hope of the same crown of martyrdom.

Far away, along the English coast, white cliffs glistened beneath the purple canopy of cloudless sky, and wavelets, bluer than the heaven above them, broke into silver fringe upon the yellow sands. Behind that natural rampart of white cliffs, great fields of waving corn grew riper in the sunshine, till every heavy ear of feathery oats and bearded barley changed to gold.

Who would have stayed in London at such a time as this, unless held prisoner by the iron hand of circumstance? Who would have stayed in this great prison-house of brick and stone, while far away, in sheltered bays, pleasant cottages were waiting to be let to any traveller who cared to live in them — and pay for them? Who would have been so mad as to linger in those stony streets, in which stale wall-fruit, piled upon the stalls, and flavoured with tobacco-smoke from the short clay pipes of Hibernian purveyors, was the only evidence of summer; when the same fruit, in pleasant gardens far away, mingled its luscious fragrance with the breath of myriad flowers, and waited till someone should have time to gather it?

Who would stop in London, where all the glorious expanse of sky was contracted to a narrow strip of blue, seen, by such passengers as looked high enough, between two rows of dingy houses? Who would stop in London, where the sweet air of summer-time, scented far away by a hundred perfumes, was tainted by the odours of stale fish and fading vegetables, hot roasted meats exposed in cook-shop windows, bone-burning factories, gas-works, soap-boiling, and asphalte — where in close courts and alleys the demon Cholera was a palpable presence, a hideous, vaporous shape, creeping to and fro in the stifling atmosphere?

Who would stop in London, when every ripple of the purple sea seemed a new note of music echoing in the balmy air — when the white sails of distant boats, transformed to silver in the glory of the sun, invited roving spirits to explore the trembling pathways traced by golden light upon the restless bosom of the sea? Who would linger inland at a time like this, when drowsy Londoners, released from toil, were dozing behind the shelter of their newspapers upon the glistening beach of every watering-place in England — when children were wading knee-deep in the plashing water, and merry-hearted girls, sporting like children with the capricious waves, only less fickle and inconstant than their sweet coquettish selves? Who would stop in London when express-trains were starting from every terminus at every hour of the day, and rushing, like winged demons, through the land, and making flight of distances that to our grandfathers, cramped and stifled in the interior of a blundering stage-coach, would have been the toil of half a week? Who would stop in London in this sunny August season, when the cholera is rife, and dismal stories of sudden sickness and death are heard at every street-corner by those who care to stop and listen to the ghastly tidings; and grim placards on the walls warn hapless citizens that the dreaded small-pox is a guest among them, rubbing shoulders with them in every street? Who would stop in London — except the poor? The poor who have no money to pay express fares or expensive lodgings, luxuriously furnished, and let for weekly rents that sound fabulous to those who find it hard work to pay eighteenpence a-week for a garret in a blind alley. The poor, who, having drawn blanks in the great lottery of life, must be content to huddle together and hide themselves in narrow courts and squalid places, where the hideous aspects of poverty are not likely to offend the gaze of well-bred citizens.

Who but the poor would care to stop in this vast labyrinth of brick, amid this seething mass of struggling humanity, made almost inhuman by the fury of the perpetual struggle — the eternal and unchanging struggle for that which decent people’s children hold it a punishment to be fed upon — BREAD?

Amidst the many wrestlers for this pitiful prize, amidst the many luckless wretches who fight for bread as richer men strive for titles and lands, honour and renown, a king’s favour or a nation’s admiration — amidst the numberless of earth’s creatures disputing with each other for the mere privilege of a joyless life — a young man, carrying something wrapped in green baize under his arm, tramped through the streets of London upon this sunny August afternoon.

He was handsome, nor could his shabby clothes — and they were very shabby — entirely disguise the air of high blood and good breeding which pervaded his appearance.

But there was something in that pale olive face, there was something in the sombre depths of those dark-gray eyes, which was not pleasant to see.

That something was despair.

Despair was stamped as plainly on the man’s face as if the letters that make up the word had been branded upon his forehead by a red-hot iron.

Defiance and despair had struggled for the mastery in this man’s breast. He had tried to defy the world, but the world had been too much for him. It had denied him bread. It had starved him, but it had not humiliated him. He held his head high still. If he could have become a cheat, a thief, a scoundrel, trading in some unholy merchandise for the sake of bread, the world would have starved him into crime. But he had been stronger than the world so far, and had not yet hearkened to the tempter; though Heaven knows he never passed a jeweller’s shop, he never saw the flash and scintillation of precious gems glittering in the sunlight, without hearing a diabolical voice, louder than the loudest traffic in the crowded street, crying in his ear, “These would buy bread.”

It is not to be supposed that it was for himself alone this strong man wanted to get bread. He was a great deal too reckless and indifferent to have tramped hither and thither on the burning flagstones of the City for that! For himself, he was well-nigh tired of existence, and he would have been content to lie down in any corner of the world in which he had been so badly treated, and die; or he would have taken the Queen’s shilling and gone away, anywhere, to be killed in her Majesty’s service.

For himself he was utterly reckless; but there was one at home, waiting for him: a little child of three years old, who for days and weeks past had been living face to face with the gaunt shadow of want, the horrible spectre of swiftly-approaching starvation.

The man’s name, or the name by which he was known to those amongst whom he had lived for the last few years, was Gervoise Gilbert. He was an artist, and the something which he carried under his arm was a picture, painted so lately that the varnish upon it was scarcely dry.

He had been wandering about since early morning, trying to sell this picture, and he had walked more miles than he had cared to count, going from shop to shop in hopes of finding a customer. He had applied to furniture-brokers and picture-dealers, to merchants, who dealt in all manner of old curiosities, and who had dingy, smoky-looking paintings in their windows, for which they demanded fabulous sums; but nobody would have anything to say to his picture, a simple careless sketch of a child sitting amongst the long grass of a meadow, with its lap full of daisies.

The young man called his picture the “Daisy-chain,” and the face of the child was a portrait of his own son; the little boy who was waiting for the food his father hoped to carry him — the child who was suffering the agony of hunger while the father was toiling backwards and forwards in those cruel streets.

At last, when the man had walked so far that he felt he must soon yield to sheer fatigue and crawl back to his wretched home empty-handed, succour came.

Gervoise Gilbert had wandered into a quiet street, where the shops were small, but tolerably prosperous-looking. He walked slowly, looking right and left as he went, but he saw no shop at which he could venture to offer his picture for sale.

No, there were no brokers or picture-dealers in that quiet street, and the young man was going to leave it, when the sight of three golden balls, the sign by which poverty recognises its last friend, the pawnbroker, attracted his weary glance.

“That’s the last hope,” he muttered. “Some pawnbrokers refuse to take pictures such as mine; but this man may be better than the rest. I’ll try him.”

The shop was dark and dingy-looking, and the name of J. Moulem was painted above the door.

Mr. Moulem made some faint pretence of being a jeweller, and exhibited half a dozen fat silver watches, a child’s coral, two or three pairs of earrings, a set of shirt-studs, and a plated teapot in his window; but the greater part of the same window was devoted to the display of second-hand wearing apparel, sundry remnants of silk and velvet, a violin and flageolet, a rickety old guitar, innocent of any pretence to strings, and a few pictures.

The young painter looked rather hopefully at these pictures; they were a great deal worse than that which he carried under his arm; but then, on the other hand, they boasted gaudy, tarnished frames, and were on that account more saleable.

Gervoise Gilbert opened the door, and went into the shop, which was a perfect grove of faded garments, hanging from the ceiling.

Mr. Moulem emerged from his little den, or parlour, behind the shop, with his mouth full of bread-and-butter, and a shrimp between his fingers. It was half-past five o’clock, and the pawnbroker had just seated himself at the family tea-table.

“It seems as if, take it when he may, or how he can, a man never is to have his tea in peace,” Mr. Moulem grumbled as he came out of the parlour. “Now then, young man, what next?”

He said this with as injured a tone as if Gervoise Gilbert had been worrying him throughout that day; whereas the artist had never set eyes upon Mr. Moulem before.

“Now then?” repeated the pawnbroker; “what is it? Is it flat-irons? It a’most always is when I’m fetched away from my cup of tea.”

Gervoise Gilbert stated his business and uncovered his picture, but the pawnbroker shook his head before the artist could remove the baize.

“It ain’t a bit of good showin’ it to me,” he said decisively. “I’ve got too much of that sort of stuff a’ready, my winder’s cluttered up with pictur’s; you might have seen ’em if you’d looked.”

I did see them,” the young man answered faintly — he was almost too much exhausted to speak above his breath. “I did see them, and I thought, as you seem to sell pictures, you might—”

“As I seem to sell ’em?” cried the pawnbroker contemptuously; “as I seem to don’t sell ’em, you might say. If I could sell them pictur’s should I have ’em in my winder, I should like to know; and I have had ’em in my winder till they’re that spoiled by the flies as you wouldn’t know the landscapes from the figures; and still nobody won’t buy ’em.”

Gervoise Gilbert was too tired to remonstrate; he turned despondently away, with his unlucky picture under his arm.

“If I could break stones upon the highway,” he muttered, “I might earn sixpence a-day. But I’m only an artist, and I can’t earn a halfpenny.”

He was on the threshold of the shop-door, when a cheerful sounding, pleasant voice behind him said:

“You might have a look at the picture, father. The poor young man seems awful tired.”

The artist turned quickly at this welcome sound — it was the sound of a woman’s voice pleading for him, the first token of pity which he had received that day from any living creature.

The speaker was Mr. Moulem’s eldest daughter, a plump little woman nursing a baby.

“That’s just like you women,” said the pawnbroker; “you want me to take this here pictur’ because a man looks tired, and that there gownd because a woman looks hungry, and to make a hunconscionable advance upon a flat-iron if a child looks as if she’d been cryin’! A nice way you’d carry on business if you was left to yourself, I don’t think.”

“Look at the picture, father.”

Mr. Moulem didn’t say he would; but then, on the other hand, he didn’t say he wouldn’t; and Gervoise Gilbert had uncovered the picture once more while the pawnbroker was hesitating.

The young woman with the baby was enraptured with the simple sketch.

“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed; “not a bit like them nasty dingy things in the window, father. I don’t wonder you can’t sell them; but I’m sure you could sell this, and if you couldn’t I should like it for our parlour, that I should, father. What a dear, sweet little fellow!” she added; “I never see such a pretty child; smilin’, too, bless his little heart, just like life!”

Gervoise Gilbert sighed.

“He’d need to smile in the picture, poor child!” he said.

Something in his tone made the woman look up to him.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because he doesn’t often smile out of it. He’s starving!”

“Starving! That sweet child?”

“Yes. It isn’t an uncommon fate. This is a great city, and we are all too busy to think of our neighbours. So nobody takes much notice of the women and children, ay, and the strong men too, who die of starvation. I’ve been from one end of London to the other to-day to try and get five shillings for that picture.”

“Father, father,” cried the young woman, “you hear that; I’m sure you’d give ten shillings for the picture — you’ll get fifteen for it any day, or five-and-twenty if you was to put it in a frame.”

Mr. Moulem shrugged his shoulders, and looked at his daughter with an expression of unmitigated contempt.

“Yes, you are a nice one for the business, Rachel,” he said.— “Now, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you, young man,” he added; “I don’t want the pictur’, and I don’t believe I shall sell it — for as to my daughter here, she’s a good-hearted young woman, but she knows no more about a pawnbroker’s business, no, nor about his losses, neither, than the baby at her breast; but I’ll give you a crown for it — yes or no?”

“Yes, then,” cried Gervoise Gilbert; “the picture’s worth twenty times that money; but if it was my life’s blood I think I should sell it you.”

He took up the crown which the pawnbroker had selected from the till, and was hurrying from the shop, when he stopped suddenly, took off his hat, and bowed to Mr. Moulem’s daughter.

“God bless you and reward you, ma’am,” he said, “for the first pitiful words I’ve heard this day.”

In another moment he was gone, and the door had closed upon him.

“Bless us and save us!” exclaimed the pawnbroker, “if that gentleman isn’t cracked, there ain’t no lunatics in Bedlam! He’s mad as a March hare, I should think.”

No, father,” the young woman answered gently; “not mad — he’s only very miserable.”

 

Chapter 2
Gin

The street in which Mr. Moulem the pawnbroker lived was a shabby street, but when compared with the sordid alley to which Gervoise Gilbert bent his steps, it was splendid as one of the noblest thoroughfares in Belgravia.

Here, in this dismal alley, poverty and crime, vice and innocence, rubbed shoulders. The poor cannot choose their companions, and destitution makes one common bond, which unites creatures so dissimilar in every other respect that they might almost be the inhabitants of different planets. The alley was in the heart of St. Giles’s, and it was called Purvis-court.

Gervoise Gilbert had bought a couple of rolls and a quarter of a pound of cooked meat, on his way to this wretched place. He pushed open the door of one of the houses, passed by a group of children huddled together on the step, and mounted the dark, dilapidated staircase leading to the roof.

He opened the door of one of the garrets and went in. There was very little furniture in the room, only a truckle bed, covered with a patchwork counterpane, a couple of rush-bottomed chairs, a deal table, and a great gaunt empty easel standing in the middle of the bare floor.

A woman was lying on the bed — a woman who was young and who had once been pretty, but whose bloated face bore upon it the most horrible evidence that a woman’s face can bear, the fatal stamp which brands the besotted countenance of a drunkard.

She was sleeping now, a heavy, drunken slumber, and she never stirred at the sound of the opening door. This sleeping woman was Gervoise Gilbert’s wife, and it was she who had dragged the young man down into that dark abyss of poverty and degradation from which he found it so impossible to rise.

He had met her four years before, when his future life seemed to smile upon him, lightening the burdens of the present, and beckoning him onward along the road to greatness.

When he had married this woman he had been proud, ambitious, hopeful. Now, he was only defiant and despairing.

The pretty, graceful girl whom he had loved and wedded was transformed into a drunken fury dangerous to approach, or a besotted wretch sleeping off the fumes of gin.

Yes, the gin fiend, the comforter and tempter of the poor, had laid his fatal grasp upon Agatha Gilbert. She had not been able to bear poverty, she had not been blest with that cheerful and contented spirit which is woman’s noblest dower. Tempted by the women about her, she had tried to drown her sorrows in gin.

Perhaps the painter himself may have been a little to blame for his wife’s degradation. He had grown impatient of her complaints, her tears, her murmurs. If she could have borne her fate bravely and nobly, his love for her would never have diminished; but that love wore out under the perpetual torments which a discontented woman can inflict upon her husband.

He had long ceased to love her. Now he hated her. He hated her, for she was the burden which weighed him down to ruin and degradation. How could he hope to rise? In what sphere of life could he hope to hold up his head with this woman by his side, the sharer of his name, the mother of his child — his wife; only to be separated from him by death?

He thought of this sometimes, as he sat looking at her in gloomy silence.

“Will she die young?” he thought; “will she drink herself to death, and leave me free? O, what a new life mine might be, released from this horrible burden!”

But Gervoise Gilbert was not base enough to encourage the fatal vice that threatened to kill the wife he hated. He tried all in his power to rescue the wretched woman. He pleaded, he expostulated, he threatened; but it was all in vain. She would not hear him; she would not let him save her.

Heaven help us!” he muttered, as he glanced at the prostrate figure on the bed; “she can get gin even when I can’t get food!”

A little boy — a golden-haired, blue-eyed child of three years old — was kneeling upon the ledge of the window, clinging to the bars which guarded the casement, and looking down at the children below; but he turned at the sound of his father’s footstep, and slipped to the ground.

“Papa,” he cried, “papa, I’m so glad you’re come! I’ve been looking at the children playing in the street. But I wouldn’t go down, because you said I mustn’t.”

Gervoise Gilbert lifted the child in his arms and kissed him.

“Bless you, Georgey!” he said; “you’re papa’s own treasure — his only treasure! What has your mother been doing, Georgey?”

“She’s been out; and then she came in, and she was cross, and like — you know, papa — like she always is after she’s been out a long time; and she beat me because I spoke to her; and then she lay down on the bed, and she’s been asleep ever since. I tried to wake her, but she wouldn’t wake. Why is she so cross to me, papa, and so different from you?”

The boy looked eagerly in his father’s face as he asked the question; then, in a low, anxious voice, he said:

“Papa, have you brought anything to eat? I’ve been so hungry all day.”

Gervoise Gilbert looked at the child for a few moments before he replied. The despair which had been visible in his countenance all day intensified as he gazed at the childish face.

“Papa,” cried the boy, “why do you look at me like that?”

His father did not answer, but walked slowly to the empty easel.

Upon a shelf near the easel there were some brushes and a palette, with some leaden tubes that had once held colours.

“The picture-trade won’t last any longer,” muttered the painter, as he looked at these empty tubes; “I have used all my colours, and have no money to buy more. Mr. Moulem’s prices won’t pay for paint and canvas. Great God, what an end! And I once dreamed of being a great artist.”

He groaned aloud, in the bitterness of his soul; and then, turning from the easel to the bed, looked darkly at the prostrate figure.

“If you had been a better woman,” he said below his breath, “I might have been a different man. The blight of my life has been there.”

He took the bread and meat from his pocket, and placed it before the child. The little boy ate ravenously, and the father watched him with a smile, the first that had lighted his face that day; but he touched nothing himself.

“Papa,” the child exclaimed, “ain’t you hungry too?”

“No, my pet.”

Gervoise flung himself into a chair opposite the low truckle bed, and sat with his elbows on his knees, and his chin resting on his hands, watching the sleeping woman.

She never stirred; the weary eyelids were never lifted from the dim eyes; the heavy head lay as it had fallen on the pillow.

She had been a pretty woman. The disordered hair, streaming upon that wretched pillow, was dark and luxuriant; the features of the face were regular; and long dark lashes fringed the closed eyelids.

The artist sat in the same position, never speaking, never looking away from the figure on the bed. The child finished his supper, and then, creeping softly to his father’s side, sat down upon the ground at the young man’s feet. The sun went down in all his summer grandeur, glorifying even the garret windows of a court like this with splashes of crimson splendour, that turned the common glass to brighter hues than were ever produced by mortal hands, even in the days when the art of staining glass was in all its mediæval glory. The evening shadows deepened in the room and on the artist’s face; but before the light quite died away, Gervoise Gilbert changed his attitude and drew the deal table towards him. There was a penny ink-bottle and an old quill-pen upon the narrow ledge which served as an apology for a chimney-piece. Gervoise took these and a sheet of crumpled note-paper, and wrote, slowly and deliberately, the following lines:

“AGATHA GILBERT, — When I met you five years ago, I was an ambitious man, with a bright future, as I thought, before me. I married you, and from that hour to this a blight has clung to me.

“Have you ever considered that a wife’s duty is to be a help and comfort, not a hindrance and a burden, to the man whose name she bears? Have you ever remembered this, and tried to aid me in the battle of life? No; as I live, not once!

“I am weary of the struggle, Agatha. I am weary of trying to save you from the hateful vice which is doomed to be the destruction of your body and soul. If the law could part us, I would appeal to the law. But, unhappily, justice has no remedy for wrongs such as mine. The law gives no redress to the husband whose wife robs her child of bread in order that she may have money to buy gin.

“I depart, therefore, of my own will. Every link that ever united us is broken — every hope of domestic happiness that I ever cherished is shattered — every feeling of affection that ever warmed my heart has died out, leaving only the bitter ashes of regret behind.

“I go I know not where, and I take the boy with me. It is for his sake I endure a miserable and broken life. If it were not for him, I would go to the nearest river and drown my troubles in a deeper oblivion than that which gin gives to you.

“Good-bye. I try not to think bitterly of you; I try to forgive you, as I pray you to forgive me for any wrong I may have done you. I have been often impatient, harsh, violent; but I have suffered, and suffered intensely. Once more, goodbye. Do not attempt to follow me, or to seek me out. You will never see me, you will never hear of me again, nor of your child.

“You have chosen your road in life, and have been reckless as to the misery it has brought upon me. I now choose my pathway, and it leads me far away from you.

“GERVOISE GILBERT.”

The young man folded this letter, placed it on the mantelpiece, where it was sure to meet his wife’s eye; then he awoke the boy, who had fallen asleep with his head upon his father’s knee.

“You have a warmer frock than that, haven’t you, Georgey?” said Gervoise, pointing to the little ragged cotton garment which covered his son’s slender frame.

“No, papa.”

“You had one; a woollen frock — very shabby, but thick and warm.”

“Yes, but mamma took it, you know, papa, ever so many days ago. She took it out with her, and never brought it back.”

The father muttered an execration. He had seen the comfort of a decent home melt away little by little until it had come to this. He had striven hard against the grim invader, poverty, but he had striven in vain. Of what use were his struggles, when his wife spent every shilling she could wring from him in gin?

She had robbed her husband and child of every comfort, even of common necessaries, and lastly she had taken her child’s clothes to the pawnbroker.

“Put on your cap, Georgey,” said Gervoise Gilbert; “you are going for a long journey with papa. Shall you like that?”

“O, yes, yes; I’ll go anywhere with you, papa.”

“Come, then, my darling. But remember, Georgey, we are not going by the railroad; we are not going to travel, as we once travelled when you were a very little child; we are poor now, and we must go on foot. We must walk, Georgey; but when you are tired, papa will carry you.”

“But I won’t be tired, papa,” the boy answered proudly.

Gervoise Gilbert looked down upon him with a loving smile.

“Brave spirit!” he exclaimed. “Noble spirit! The blood of all the Palgraves of Palgrave Chase spoke there.”

The artist had not many preparations to make before leaving that wretched shelter; he had only one clean shirt, so ragged as to have escaped from the clutches of the pawnbroker. He had no extra coat, no carpet-bag, no railway-rug with which to burden himself.

He put the shirt in his pocket, put on his hat, took an old silk handkerchief from his own throat, and tied it on the neck of the child, then, leading the boy by the hand, he went out of the room and down the stairs into the narrow court, where the children were still brawling and quarrelling in their noisy play.

They had no inviting bedchambers to which to retire, these poor children — no well-paid and experienced nurses, solicitous about their health, to watch over their movements. They enjoyed liberty, at least, if they knew no other joy, and were free to roll in the gutter till some drunken mother, coming from the nearest public-house, swooped down upon them, and bore them off to a stifling garret, crowded by a dozen tenants.

The shadows deepened in the narrow alley; the ruby light that made cracked panes of common glass more beautiful to look upon than all the precious gems glittering in the jewellers’ shops faded slowly away, leaving the windows dark.

It was quite dark when Agatha Gilbert awoke from her drunken sleep, and staggered to the fireplace. She groped, with her right hand, along the ledge of wood until she found a box of lucifer-matches and a scrap of tallow-candle, that was stuck in an old blacking-bottle. She lighted this candle, and then looked slowly round her, winking and blinking stupidly in the dim light.

“Not come home yet,” she muttered discontentedly; “not come home yet, though it’s dark. But why should he come home? He hates me, and he doesn’t take the pains to hide his hatred. Where’s the child, though? He was here when I came in. Georgey!”

She repeated the boy’s name, in a louder key, two or three times.

But she was not alarmed at finding there was no answer; the stupor of drunkenness had not yet passed away. She stood for some moments motionless, with the light in her hand, staring straight before her.

Suddenly she perceived the letter on the chimney piece “Gilbert’s hand!” she cried; “he has been home, then!”

She set down her candle, opened the letter, and then taking up the light again in her left hand, read Gervoise Gilbert’s farewell.

She read the letter twice — hurriedly first, and then slowly — till at last the fumes of the spirit she had drunk slowly dispersed before the sense of a great calamity.

Then she uttered a loud cry — a long, ringing shriek, that vibrated shrilly through the house — and fell prostrate upon the ground.

There are strange contradictions, perplexing knots, wonderful intricacies, in that tangled web which we call the human mind.

Agatha Gilbert passionately loved the man whose life she had blighted, the child whose clothes she had pledged in order to buy gin.

 

Chapter 3
The Mark Upon Georgey’s Arm

The moon which rose late upon this August night shone like an orb of molten gold low in the sky, as the man who called himself Gervoise Gilbert emerged from a dusty road upon the pleasant expanse of Putney-heath.

It was eleven o’clock, lights were twinkling here and there in the town through which the traveller had just passed, and in a few scattered houses looking towards the open ground, and on a waste patch of land skirting the common, a gipsy fire, burning under an iron kettle, revealed the outline of a travelling-van.

Gervoise Gilbert stopped upon the edge of the road a few yards from this van, and looked yearningly at a group of men standing near the fire, and some women seated on the steps of the vehicle.

The boy had grown tired after the first mile, and Gervoise had carried him ever since. Slender as the child was, he was tall for his age, and no inconsiderable weight to be carried for a five-mile walk. He had fallen asleep now, with his head upon his father’s breast.

The artist had chosen this road with the intention of joining any party of tramps he might fall in with, if they should prove willing to accept him as one of their fraternity. He knew that it was worse than useless to remain in London.

There starvation and death stared him in the face. But there might be some chance for him in tramping hither and thither about the country. Surely now and then he would be able to sell a picture, or to paint a portrait for some simple country tradesman. If he could get nothing better than signboards to paint, he was ready to paint them. He had done with pride. He was willing to do anything to win bread for his child.

He had another motive too for wishing to join some party of humble wanderers. He knew that his wife loved him, with a passionate, jealous love, only known to violent natures. There was little doubt that she would seek him, that she would use every effort in her power to trace his footsteps.

There was less chance of her finding him if he had no fixed abode, but was perpetually shifting from place to place.

This second motive was more powerful than the first, and decided him.

The party encamped this night upon Putney-heath was a larger one than he had expected to fall in with. The van was a ponderous vehicle, and three powerful-looking horses cropped the grass upon a patch of ground behind it.

One of the men sitting on the turf by the fire looked up at Gervoise, after the artist had stood for some minutes gazing thoughtfully at the group of wanderers.

“Perhaps when you pass this way next time,” this man said, taking a short clay-pipe from his mouth, “you’ll know us again, my friend. You’ve stared long enough, and if you’re anythink in the pottery line, and wants a noo design for a fancy beer-jug, I should think you’d got a c’rect pattern of our mugs by this time.”

Gervoise Gilbert drew a little nearer to the gipsy fire — so near that his handsome face and the child’s golden hair were illuminated by the ruddy blaze.

“There was no offence in my stare, my good fellow,” he said. “I’m too low in the world to be insolent. I’m an artist, and my sympathies all go with such a life as yours. What’s more, I’m a destitute man, and if I live at all, I must live something as I presume you do — from hand to mouth, trusting to the chances of each day for a meal and a shelter at night.”

“That’s candid, anyhow,” said the man, emptying the ashes of his pipe upon the ground by his side.

“It’s the truth,” Gervoise Gilbert answered moodily.

One of the women had risen from her seat upon the steps of the van, and approached the painter.

“Is that your child?” she asked, looking at the golden head still nestling in the father’s waistcoat.

“He is,” answered Gervoise; “and but for him I might find a sound sleep at the bottom of one of the pools on this heath to-night.”

“Poor little fellow!” the woman murmured tenderly. “Is his mother dead?”

“Yes,” Gilbert answered firmly.

She was dead to him, he thought. His best hope was that she would be dead to all the world before long.

“That’s bad,” the woman said gently; “it’s very bad for such a little chap as him to be without a mother. You seem fond of him, though.”

“Fond of him!” cried Gervoise; “my heart’s blood is not so precious to me as this child. I only live for his sake. Low as I have sunk, the day may come when he will be rich and powerful. It is a far-away chance, perhaps, but it may come. Wise men, who have never been made desperate by poverty, might call me mad for even dreaming of it. But I do dream of it, by day and by night too.”

He said this rather to himself than the woman.

“Are you going far to-night?” asked the man who had spoken first.

“Not if I can help it. I want to get a shelter for this little one if I can. I’m not afraid of sleeping under a haystack, or on the bare ground amongst the furze-bushes yonder; but the boy has never slept in the open air.”

“And he sha’n’t sleep in the open air to-night, master,” said the woman, “if you’ll let him lie along with my two youngsters, in the van yonder.”

Would he let him? Gervoise Gilbert gratefully accepted the offer.

“I thought there must be charity somewhere or other in this wide world,” he said, “and, thank Heaven, I’ve come the right way to find it.”

The woman laughed good-naturedly.

“It’s no such great charity to give a night’s shelter to a child,” she said, taking the boy from Gilbert’s arms.

Georgey was completely worn out. He neither opened his eyes nor stirred his slender limbs as the woman carried him into the van, and laid him in a homely little bed, beside two sleeping lads of ten and twelve years old.

“Come,” said the man with the clay-pipe, “if you are going to sleep out o’ doors, you’d better sleep hereabouts, and I dessay one of us can lend yer a rug; besides which, you can peck a bit o’ supper along of us. Our French cook give us warning last Toosday week, ’cos that gentleman there, who’s werry partic’lar in his eatin’” — he pointed to a man whose hair was bound upon his forehead after the manner common to street-acrobats, and whose sole outer garment seemed a long rough overcoat which enveloped him from the chin to the heels— “’cos Mr. William Stokes, which his professional name is Mountmorency, complained about the fricasseed frogs’ legs bein’ underdone. So you must take pot-luck, which, I believe, is liver and bacon.”

Gervoise accepted the invitation so cordially given.

“I shall be glad to stay with you to-night,” he said, “and glad to go on with you into the bargain, if it’s agreeable — that’s to say, if I can turn my hand to anything that’ll enable me to get a living.”

The gentleman with the long hair and the rough greatcoat chimed in at this point of the conversation.

“As to yer gettin’ a livin’,” he said, “that depends upon what yer able to do. You said you was a hartist jest now; you don’t mean a hartist in the ground and lofty, do yer?”

“The ground and lofty?” asked Gervoise, puzzled.

He means to ask if yer a hacrobat,” explained the man with the pipe; “I never see such a cove as Bill; he’s that wrapped up in his purfession that he seems to think as there ain’t no other purfession goin’. Lord bless you, sir, that chap ’ud have his breakfast on the tight-rope if he could, and eat his dinner standin’ on his ’ed, if the laws of gravitation and centrifugal what’s-his-name, which was discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh all along of seeing a potato fall off a tree, didn’t purvent his swallerin’ his food upside down. He’s got one of them limited intellects, which never sees any farther than his own family circle. — No, Bill, I’ll lay all the money as I’ve got invested in the Three-per-cents — for the convenience of Queen Victoria when she finds the washing-bills at Buckingham Palace too heavy for the privy puss, and has to come upon the country before she can pay the laundress — that this here gent ain’t anythink in the acrobat line.”

“No, Heaven help me, I’m not,” answered Gervoise Gilbert. “Perhaps if I could dance upon a tight-rope, I might be able to earn bread for my boy; but I can’t — I’m only a painter.”

“A portrait-painter?”

“Yes, I can paint portraits.”

The speaker, who was an important personage, being, in fact, no other than the proprietor of the van, gave a long whistle.

If you’re a good hand at portraits,” he said, “I think as I can give you a job. We’re a hequestrian company, you must understand, and we travels through England in the summer time, sometimes performin’ at fairs, sometimes performin’ altogether on our own hook. Now, what I should like you to do for us is three or four fancy portraits of Mounseer Mountmorency, there — which he ain’t much to look at now — but comes out wonderful strong in his purfessional togs; and of Mademoiselle l’Amour, which is my wife, Nancy Cadgers, and of the two other ladies, as is Madame Zepherine and Signora Floribella, and the two gents sittin’ beside Mr. Mountmorency, which one of ’em is the Desert Whirlwind, as rides three wild Arab steeds barebacked — the Arab steeds is them animals as you see a-grazin’ yonder — and the other is Herr von Volterchoker, our German clown what was born in Bermondsey. Now, do you think as you could knock off two or three pictur’s of ’em, in different costooms and attitoodes — eh?”

“Most decidedly,” answered Gervoise; “the ladies and gentlemen shall have their portraits taken in my very best style.”

“What we want, you see,” continued Mr. Cadgers, “is something cheap and showy, warranted fast colours, as will stand the open air and sunshine. We’ll send a boy along with ’em the day before we go into a town ourselves, and get ’em hung up in the shop-winders. They’ll be about the best advertisement as we can have. I don’t suppose you and me’ll quarrel about the price, and you can live along of us, and rough it with us till they’re done.”

“Agreed,” exclaimed the painter; “and the child?”

“Never you bother yourself about him. Nancy’ll take care of him. It was her as took him into the van jest now.” So Gervoise Gilbert slept that night more peacefully beneath the purple canopy of heaven than he had ever slumbered in the fetid atmosphere of Purvis-court. He slept peacefully, for there was hope, at least, of bread for the morrow, and for many morrows; and the black shadow of despair vanished away before the light of hope.

At sunrise next morning Mr. Cadgers’s troupe left Putney-heath. The women travelled in the van, which was pretty well loaded with the fittings of the circus, the dresses and properties of the performers, and the domestic requisites of the company. Mr. Cadgers drove. The rest of the men tramped upon the dusty high-road, a few yards ahead of the van. They crossed to the Middlesex side of the water, skirted London, and bore towards the midland districts of England.

The pedestrian travellers were Gervoise Gilbert; Mr. William Stokes, alias Mounseer Mountmorency; the Desert Whirlwind, whose real name was Samuel Bolter; and Herr von Volterchoker, who declined to reveal his genuine patronymic, and who was familiarly believed to have no name whatever, saving always such cognomen as in the flight of fancy he might elect to be known by for the time being.

He was an elderly man, grim and dark, with very black eyes and grizzled hair; and it was difficult to imagine that he could ever be funny himself, or the cause of fun in others. He was unlike his comrades, who were lively and communicative; for he was rarely known to open his lips, except when compelled to do so by the common business of life. He seemed like a man who, at the very outset of his life, had taken upon him the heavy burden of some gloomy secret, and had never been able to shake off the load, or to recover from the sense of its responsibility.

Gervoise, Mr. Stokes, and Samuel Bolter walked abreast along the dusty roads, talking cheerfully enough as they went. But the clown stalked behind them, smoking perpetually, and as silent as the grave.

“Is he clever?” Gervoise asked once of his companions, after looking back for a moment at this man.

“Uncommon,” Mr. Bolter answered. “He’s uncommon clever with conjurin’ tricks, swallerin’ fire and carvin’-knives, and chuckin’ a dagger agen a mark on a wall, and all that sort of think. But he ain’t any great things at a joke, and it allus gives me the cold shivers to look at him when he’s tryin’ to be funny.”

Gervoise Gilbert stopped in one of the towns through which they passed, and bought colours and canvas with some money Mr. Cadgers advanced to him for that purpose.

At two o’clock in the day they came upon a patch of common land, upon the outskirts of a wood; and here, under the shadow of the trees, the horses were taken from the van, and the wanderers sat down to eat some bread and meat which Mr. Cadgers distributed amongst them, together with a very liberal allowance of beer, brought in a great stone jar from the last public-house they had passed.

The horses were to rest here for some hours; and after sharing this simple meal, Gervoise took out his brushes and palette, mixed his colours, prepared his canvas, and made everything ready for his work.

“We’ll begin with your portrait, Herr Volterchoker,” he said; “if you’ve no objection?”

The young man made this selection because he had been drawn by a species of fascination towards the silent clown.

The other men were good-natured fellows, commonplace and uninteresting enough. But about this man there was an air of mystery which interested Gilbert in spite of himself.

The clown made no objection to having his picture taken before any of his comrades. He slipped away to change his dress, and returned in about ten minutes in his grotesque professional costume.

This costume was loose about the body and sleeves, and left his thin, muscular arms bare from the elbow.

Gervoise Gilbert looked with surprise at these long bare arms. They were covered from the wrist upwards with strange figures, tattooed in indigo and vermilion — figures which no time could erase.

The painter commenced his task, and worked industriously till sunset. By that time Herr von Volterchoker’s portrait was finished; carelessly painted, but painted with an artistic dash which reveals the force and vigour of genius.

The men and women crowded round to look at the portrait of their companion. Everyone of them had half a dozen remarks to make — remarks of surprise, approbation, delight. But the clown said nothing. He stood apart with his arms folded, looking moodily at the painter and the noisy group around him.

Presently Gervoise Gilbert addressed him: “Do you think it’s like?” he asked, pointing to the portrait.

“Like enough,” the clown answered, glancing over the painter’s shoulder at the wet picture; “like enough, I daresay. It isn’t the first time I’ve had my picture painted, but I hope it may be the last. I’m not so very handsome that people should want to be reminded of me when I’m dead and gone.”

Gervoise Gilbert noticed that though this man spoke in a sullen tone, his accent and manner of speaking were very superior to the vulgar twang and cockney English of his companions.

The moon had risen when the horses were put to, and the van started once more upon its wandering way. This time Gervoise left Mr. Stokes and Mr. Bolter, and fell back by the side of the clown. Herr von Volterchoker looked at him rather suspiciously.

“You’d better stick to your friends,” he said quietly; “you’ll find them livelier than me, and I don’t much care about company.”

“I won’t trouble you long,” answered Gervoise; “I’ll go back to them presently, but I want to ask you a question first.”

“Ask away, then,” muttered the clown, without taking the stem of his pipe from between his lips, “and be quick about it.”

“How long have you had those marks upon your arms?”

“Thirty years.”

“Did you do them yourself?”

“Not all of them. Some were done by a sailor on board ship, more than a thousand miles from here. I did the rest myself.”

“Will you do me a favour?”

“That depends upon what it is. If it isn’t much trouble I don’t suppose I shall refuse.”

“The little boy travelling in yonder van is my only child, dearer to me than anything else in the world. There is a person who would be very glad to get him from me if she could, and all last night I was haunted by the fear that he might be taken from me. If he were taken from me now, in his early childhood, he might alter as he grew to manhood, and the chances are that, after years of searching for him, I might meet him and not recognise him. More than this, the day may come — I don’t say it ever will, but it may — in which that boy will be the heir to a great fortune. If this should ever happen, it will be necessary to prove his identity. I want you to set such a mark on him as will never fade or alter, though he should change so much that the most loving eyes would fail to recognise him. Will you do this for me?”

“I will,” answered Herr von Volterchoker readily; I don’t often do a good-natured thing, but I’ll do this. It’ll be like most people’s good-nature in this world — it won’t cost me anything.”

Early the next morning, while most of the party were still fast asleep on the spot they had chosen at midnight for their resting-place, Gervoise Gilbert peeped into the van and called to his son. The children had been awake for some time, and Georgey came out at the sound of his father’s voice. The boy was very happy with his new friends. “It is better than being with mamma,” he said; “I don’t get beaten now.”

Herr von Volterchoker was up and stirring ready to fulfil his promise. The two men seated themselves side by side upon the grass at the back of the van. Here they were completely secluded from the rest of the party.

Gervoise Gilbert took the child on his knees, and bared the fair little arm, pushing the sleeve of the boy’s threadbare frock high above his shoulder.

“What we’re going to do will hurt you a little, Georgey,” he said, but you’ll try to bear the pain, won’t you — you’ll be a brave little man, for papa’s sake?”

“Yes, papa,” the boy answered firmly, lifting his bright, innocent eyes to his father’s face.

“What marks do you want me to tattoo upon his arm?” the clown asked.

An earl’s coronet, and the initials ‘G. P.’”

 

Chapter 4
The Foster-Brothers

Before the end of August, Mr. Cadgers’s company had penetrated into the leafy depths of beautiful Warwickshire. There was to be a fair held at Avondale, that pleasant, old-fashioned market-town, in the heart of that picturesque region which is sacred to the memory of William Shakespeare, and thither Mr. Cadgers conducted his troupe, with a view to astonishing the simple rustics with the combined efforts of the Desert Whirlwind, Monsieur Montmorency, Herr von Volterchoker, and the ladies.

Gervoise Gilbert and little Georgey wandered happily together through the shady lanes and fair high-roads of beautiful England.

Mr. Cadgers knew all the short cuts and by-lanes in the land, it seemed to Gervoise, for he led his band across heathery patches of common, by purple moorland and wandering streams, under the shadow of grassy hills, by wood and water, and through long, sheltered lanes, where there were comfortable nooks in which to rest at night It was a pleasant journey altogether, and Gervoise Gilbert was happier than he had been for years past. He had put away ambition: that bright attribute of manhood, without which man seems less than man, had been starved out of him. He had put away all thoughts of future greatness, or even future wealth, and was resigned to cast in his lot with these low-born associates, and to get his living amongst them as best he might, for the sake of his child. He smiled when first he heard from Mr. Cadgers that Avondale was the destination of the troupe.

“You must know Avondale, eh?” exclaimed the sagacious proprietor.

“I knew it once,” Gervoise answered thoughtfully.

“Then if you knew it once, you know it always,” cried Mr. Cadgers, “for I’m blessed if you’ll find any alteration there. Avondale is a town as stopped growin’ when it was very young — in the time of Queen Elizabeth, or thereabouts — and it’s never growed any more since. It throw’d out a sort of hexcrescience, in the shape of a terrace of red-brick houses, two year ago; but the owdacious builder as put ’em up went mad, and hung hisself in one of the attics, d’reckly he see what he’d done, and that cast a shade of melancholy over the houses, which most of ’em have been to let ever since. And so you know Avondale, do you?” exclaimed Mr. Cadgers, slapping his knee with one hand, and shifting his pipe to the other side of his mouth with the other; “well, that’s queer now, ain’t it?”

“It is queer,” Gervoise answered, with a strange shadow npon his face; “it is very queer that I should go into that town, as I shall go into it with you, considering—”

“Considerin’ what, Mr. Jarvis?”

Gervoise had called himself Jarvis in his dealings with Mr. Cadgers and that gentleman’s gifted company.

“Never mind what. Every man has a corner of his mind that he likes to keep dark. That’s my dark corner,” the young man answered, stooping to light his pipe with the burning tobacco in the bowl of Mr. Cadgers’s short, blackened meerschaum.

The faces of the two men were close together as Gervoise said this. Mr. Cadgers looked at him scrutinisingly.

“You’re very close, Mr. Jarvis,” he said; “but as far as that goes, you’re welcome to be close. You mind your business, and I mind mine; that’s true Christianity, to my thinkin’. But there’s some things people can’t help guessin’ at, if you keep ’em never so close; and, of course, I know well enough you’re not one of our sort. You’re a gentleman, you are; and a gentleman as has it in him to hold his head pretty high, but as has been put upon by the world somehow, I take it. Is that it?”

“That’s about it,” Gervoise answered.

“Precisely. Now, do you know, Mr. Jarvis, as you was a-stoopin’ over me to light your pipe just this minute, a hidea came into my ’ed?”

“Indeed.”

“Yes; and that hidea was, that I’d seen you before the other day. Whether it’s someone like you as I’ve seen, or whether it’s you yourself, I can’t tell.”

“You must have seen someone like me,” said Gervoise; “I don’t think it’s likely you ever saw me until that night upon Putney-heath.”

“I’ve got it,” said Mr. Cadgers, slapping his knee so violently that he nearly jerked himself off the five-barred gate upon which he was sitting. It was Mr. Cadgers’s habit to sit upon the shaft of his van, the top-rail of a five-barred gate, the stump of a tree, or anything of the like uncomfortable nature, in preference to those vulgar chairs and benches on which the common run of mankind repose. “I’ve got it, and it’s talking of Avondale that’s put it into my mind. You’re the livin’ image of the old Earl of Haughton what died two year ago.”

Gervoise Gilbert started, and turned very pale.

“Is the old Earl of Haughton dead?” he said.

“I flatter myself that he is,” answered Mr. Cadgers, “and died uncommon hard, too, I’ve heard say. Just as he’d lived, the old rapscallion; which I called upon him three years ago, askin’ him to give us his name for a bespeak, and lend us one of his meadders to perform in, and he told me he’d see me all manner of uncivil things fust, and offered to have me kicked out of doors by his butler. Yes, the old varmint has hooked it; and don’t my young lord go it, that’s all; huntin’ and steeplechasin’, and the dooce knows what! He’s a regular wild un, is Lord Haughton. He’ll give us a bespeak, I’ll lay anything, and, as you’ve got such a géntlemanly way with you, you might do the good-natured thing by us, and go and ask for it — mightn’t you, now?”

Gervoise looked at Mr. Cadgers with a strange smile.

“No,” he said; “of all the things that are to be done upon this earth, the last I’ll do is to ask a favour of Lord Haughton.”

“Why not?”

“Because I knew him once; when I was a lad.”

“And uncommon like the Haughton family you are, too,” exclaimed Mr. Cadgers; “uncommon like ’em. You ain’t a hillegit—”

What?” cried Gervoise, turning so suddenly upon Mr, Cadgers, that the latter gentleman nearly tumbled backwards into the meadow behind him. “What?”

“Why, of course you ain’t!” cried Mr. Cadgers very hastily; who said you was? I should like to know who said you was? You needn’t fly at a feller as if you was a-goin’ to choke him with his own front teeth, just because he asks you a civil question. But you are uncommon like the Haughton family, for all that!”

“Perhaps I am. There have been accidental likenesses before to-day.”

“So there has. I’ve seen a many sich; and very orkard accidents they’ve been, too, some of ’em; so let’s say no more about it,” answered Mr. Cadgers, with quiet dignity.

No more was said, but this conversation had taken place in the hearing of Herr von Volterchoker, who lay at full length upon the grass at Gervoise Gilbert’s feet, smoking quietly, and listening to everything that was said.

The silent clown had a retentive memory, and was a close observer into the bargain. He knew how to read a man’s looks, as well as his words. He knew the value of the tone in which a word was spoken, as well as of the word itself.

The troupe arrived at a hilly patch of common land outside Avondale in the dusk of the evening; and, while Mr. Cadgers and his associates were busy with their preparations for the next day, Gervoise Gilbert, with his hat slouched over his forehead, and the collar of his coat turned up so as to conceal the lower part of his face, went out into the quiet little town.

It was a quaint, old-fashioned place, and seemed, as Mr. Cadgers had said, very much as if no change had come to it since good Queen Bess rode with her favourite by her side along the stony street, while loyal voices gave her clamorous welcome, and loyal children strewed sweet English flowers under her horse’s feet. You went into the town by a grim stone archway, and you went out of it by another archway, grimmer and stonier, if possible, and half borne down by a lop-sided church-tower, in which poor persecuted Charles I. once found a sorry lodging. The traveller who should fall asleep in that old town, and on awakening find Leicester’s varlets carousing in the low tavern parlour, and William Shakespeare lounging in the market-place, would scarcely be surprised. Beyond the grim stone gate, there was a winding river and a buttressed bridge; and above the bridge there towered tall, ivy-mantled castle-walls, within whose ponderous shelter a new sleeping beauty might have slumbered, with her retainers round her, waiting for the coming of the chosen prince foredoomed to awaken her.

In the dusky summer twilight, Gervoise Gilbert strolled along the narrow High-street, into the market-place, where the townspeople, grouped here and there, talked of the fair that was to be held upon the morrow.

They had something more than the fair to talk about. Avondale races also were to take place the next day, and the great event was to be a steeplechase with gentleman riders; and the crack rider was the young Earl of Haughton. Gervoise came upon a group of gossips who were discussing this event with considerable animation.

“They do say as the young countess went down upon her knees implorin’ of my lord not to ride,” an old woman said; “but he’s that obstinate, there’s no more turning him than you could bend the iron battle-axes in the great hall at Palgrave Chase.”

“That’s hard, too, upon the countess,” said another woman; “for she’s a sweet young creature, and my lord expects an heir to the estate very soon, I’ve heard say.”

“Yes, and then there’ll be fine doin’s in Avondale, I suppose; for whatever Lord Haughton’s faults may be, his worst enemies can’t say that he doesn’t do things handsomely.”

Gervoise Gilbert stopped to read the programme of the races, in the window of a low, gable-roofed public-house, near the corner where these gossips stood. Yes, there it was sure enough:

“At 30 minutes after 3, a steeplechase: gentlemen riders.
Devilshoof b. c.... The Earl of Haughton.
Meg Merrilies, br. f... Captain Clifford.
Pepper-box, gr. f.... Stephen Constable, Esq.”

There were only three riders for this steeplechase; and some boys standing near Gervoise were talking of the double ditches and double fences that had been constructed on the course.

The young man was turning away from the lighted tavern-window, when a hand was suddenly laid upon his shoulder.

He turned quickly round, and found himself face to face with a man of about his own age — a daredevil-looking fellow, with a dark, sunburnt face, and bright black eyes. He looked half-gipsy, half-brigand, and was dressed in a velveteen coat with plated buttons, a gaudy cashmere waistcoat, a wideawake hat, corduroy breeches, and leathern gaiters.

He was a reformed poacher who had turned gamekeeper, and he was Gervoise Gilbert’s foster-brother. His name was Humphrey Melwood.

“I couldn’t be mistaken in you, Mr. Gervoise,” he said, holding out his broad, muscular hand.

He was taller by half a foot than Gervoise Gilbert, and he was big and broad-shouldered, a handsome young Hercules, with a fierce sparkle in his black eyes that promised no good to anyone who provoked his resentment.

Gervoise shook hands with him.

“I thought you had gone abroad, Humphrey,” he said.

“Well, I was going to Australia, Mr. Gervoise; but mother took on dreadful at the notion of my going; and just about that time the earl died, and the young lord said he’d give me one more chance; so now I’m under-gamekeeper at the Chase; and I’m pretty comfortable, sir, and so’s mother, now that I’ve turned steady. And there’s only one thing as I wish for in this blessed world, and that’s for you to be my master, instead of him that now is Earl of Haughton. Not but what he’s kind and generous, sir; but there’s that between you and me, Mr. Gervoise, that’s more than blood, I sometimes think.”

The young man looked at him with a mournful smile.

“Yes, Humphrey,” he said; “we slept upon the same breast when we were children together. Perhaps it would have been better for one of us if he had died then.”

“Not for you, Mr. Gervoise; don’t say that,” the gamekeeper answered entreatingly. “While there’s life there’s hope, you know. I’m only a poor good-for-nothing scoundrel, that never did a good turn for anybody in all my life; but I think you know, Mr. Gervoise, that I’d lay down my life for you, and welcome, if the loss of such a useless life as mine could be any gain to you.”

The two men walked away from the market-place, and down under the gloomy archway, and out upon the gray stone bridge. They leaned upon the moss-grown parapet as they talked. The rippling water shone silver-bright in the moonlight, except where the great towers of the castle cast their broad black shadows on the river.

In the good old times that are for ever gone, lonely prisoners, rotting in damp cells level with the river-bed, had listened to the plashing of that water, and the waving of the willows as they dipped into the stream.

“I’d lay down my life for you, and think it naught, Mr. Gervoise,” said Humphrey Melwood; “and mother and me have thought sometimes that it would have been but kind of you if you’d written to tell us what you were doing in London. I went up there once to look for you; but I’m a rough, ignorant country fellow, and the place seemed strange to me. I walked about the streets till my feet ached, and I was always losin’ myself, and it seemed like lookin’ for a needle in a haystack, so I gave it up; but you might have wrote to us, Mr. Gervoise. If neither mother nor I could have read your letter, we would have found those as could have read it for us.”

“And it was for that very reason I didn’t write to you, Humphrey,” answered Gervoise; “I didn’t want anybody about the Chasê to know how low I’d sunk.”

“You’ve been unlucky, then, Mr. Gervoise?”

“I’ve had all the ill-luck that could fall to a man, I think. After my father’s death I dropped the name of Palgrave, and called myself Gervoise Gilbert. Gilbert was my mother’s name, you know. From that time to this I’ve been trying to support myself by painting. Heaven help me! I have failed in that, as I have failed in everything else. I am tramping through the country now, Humphrey, with a troop of strollers. I am an outcast and a reprobate, whom my cousin, Lord Haughton, would turn from his doors.”

“When did you hear of your uncle’s death, Mr. Gervoise?”

“Not until the day before yesterday. How long has he been dead?”

“Two years. The present earl married six months after his father’s death; and there’s an heir or an heiress expected at the Chase. Have you married, Mr. Gervoise?”

“Yes,” answered the young man, “I have been married, and I have a son, a boy of three years old; but for him I might have been lying at the bottom of a river before now.”

“Don’t say that, Mr. Gervoise.”

“What else should I say?” cried the painter fiercely; “what hope is there for me in life, that I should wish to live?”

Humphrey Melwood shook his head.

“It’s rather a dark look-out, certainly, sir,” he said; “but you mustn’t despair — you mustn’t despair.”

“How can I do otherwise than despair?” answered Gervoise. “My father reared me to look forward to the possession of my uncle’s title and fortune, though he must have known that I might be disappointed of it. He taught me no profession, he gave me no useful knowledge. My own taste made me a painter; but he did nothing to foster that taste.

‘Your uncle’s brat may die, boy,’ he said, ‘ and then you will be master of Palgrave Chase.’ After my father’s death I went out into the world, and faced it boldly; but it has been too strong for me; and sometimes, when the day has been darkest, I have felt a strange wild hope that my boy might live to inherit rank and fortune; but I know that hope is madness.” —

He stood with folded arms looking down at the moonlit water. Humphrey Melwood, watching his profile, saw the settled melancholy of his countenance.

“Do you mean to stay long at Avondale, Mr. Gervoise?” he asked.

“To stay long? Heaven forbid! I shall only stay so long as my companions remain here; and I shall take care to hide myself from everyone while I do stay. I came out to-night after dark to see the old place, for it seemed as if something that was stronger than myself drew me into the familiar streets; but I didn’t think I should be recognised — I didn’t wish to be recognised.”

“But don’t say you’re sorry that you met me, Mr. Gervoise!” cried Humphrey Melwood eagerly. “It’s hard that you should be sorry to see one that was your foster-brother, and that loves you as well as ever a brother was loved. The difference between our rank can’t alter the feelings of our hearts, you know, Mr. Gervoise. I’ve been a bad fellow, a bad son, and a bad servant; but I’ve been true to you; I’ve been true to you.”

“I believe you have, Humphrey.”

“And you only believe the truth, Mr. Gervoise. My mother has saved a little money, sir, and I know she’ll give it me and welcome; I shall make bold to bring it to you tomorrow.”

“No, Humphrey, no.”

“But, Mr. Gervoise—”

“I have sunk very low; do not insult me, Humphrey,” the young man said proudly. “I am a man, and I can work. I will never take a woman’s savings. Good-night!”

He walked away as he spoke; Humphrey hurried after him.

“You’ll let me see you again before you leave Avondale, Mr. Gervoise?”

“Yes, if you like. You’ll find me with an equestrian company in the fair — Cadgers’s company. You must ask for Mr. Jarvis; and remember, Humphrey, not a word to anyone in Avondale about my being in the town.”

“Not a word, sir.”

The two men parted. Gervoise went slowly back to the canvas booth, under whose shelter he was to sleep that night. Humphrey Melwood went to a favourite public-house to finish the evening with a couple of choice spirits, suspected of unholy dealings with wire traps for innocent young hares, and cruel nets for the snaring of winged fowl.

As Gervoise left the bridge a dark figure emerged from the sombre shadow of the castle towers, and followed him, always keeping at a respectful distance.

That dark figure was Herr von Volterchoker, the silent clown.

 

Chapter 5
The Gentleman Jockey Who Rode Devilshoof

The Avondale racecourse described a circle round that very patch of common land on which Avondale fair was always held. Indeed, the fair was only a part of the races. Mr. Cadgers’s equestrian troupe were in the habit of remaining idle throughout the day, while serious business was being done upon the stunted turf of the magic circle; but at night, when the races were over, when the simple country-folk had stared wonderingly at the flying thoroughbreds, and had lost their half-crowns and sixpences in friendly sweepstakes; when the carriages of the county families had driven homewards in a cloud of dust; when the betting-men had deserted that cow-shed-like edifice which was dignified by the title of the grandstand; when the glory of the race was over — then the fair began in good earnest. The gongs sounded, the drums beat, and opposition pandean-pipes squeaked discordant clamour; flaring cressets of naphtha shone out upon the blackness of the night; performing dogs yelped in their professional ardour; learned pigs grunted hoarse impatience to distinguish themselves; eager horses neighed and curveted amidst the sawdust of the ring; and the members of Mr. Cadgers’s company appeared in all their splendour.

They were not quite idle in the daytime though; for during the intervals between the races, Herr von Volterchoker swallowed swords, spun washing-basins upon the tips of walking-sticks, and mystified the bovine spectators by marvellous juggling with pocket-handkerchiefs, white mice, raw eggs, and live pigeons. Mr. Samuel Bolter performed wonderful feats of strength with unnatural-looking wooden chairs, and flung himself into attitudes utterly opposed to the harmonious laws of nature, and made himself uncomfortable to look at, for the gratification of an enraptured audience. Mrs. Cadgers, better known as Mademoiselle L’Amour, exhibited herself on these occasions in a Highland costume, and took the money at the doors with the dignity of Mrs. Rob Roy Macgregor herself.

This lady was in the habit of appearing in short petticoats on these festive occasions, and always seemed to be upon the point of executing some Terpsichorean achievement; but never of late years had been seen by mortal eye to carry out this intention.

Mrs. Cadgers was very good at promenading arm-in-arm with a Spanish nobleman with corked eyebrows and impossible calves. She was good, too, at taking the money, and had a sharp eye for spurious copper coin; but beyond this her accomplishments were of a purely legendary character.

“When first I saw my girl Nance,” Mr. Cadgers would say, when the liver and bacon, or the sausages, or the pig’s fry had been done to a turn, and the Jupiter of the caravan was in a good humour with his Juno, “when first I set eyes upon Mrs. Cadgers, which it were at the Falcon Tavern, Whitechapel, she were a dancin’ the ’ighland fling in such quick time as it would have made your ’air a’most stand on hend to look at her. But what with the wear and tear of married life, and what with the price of purvisions, I don’t think as you could get that ’ighland fling out of Mrs. Cadgers now, not if you was to lay down golden sovereigns for her to dance upon.”

Gervoise Dudley Palgrave, alias Gervoise Gilbert, alias Mr. Jarvis, lay upon a truss of hay in a corner of the canvas booth, which was curtained off from the circus, and which served as a living room for Mr. Cadgers and his company. They were all busy except the painter, and he was alone. He had allowed little Georgey to be dressed in some fantastic costume, and to show himself upon the platform and in the ring with Mr. Cadgers’s two olive branches, much to the boy’s delight. Gervoise felt that he had worked well enough to earn the right to be idle for once in a way, brooding over his dismal fate in the dusky shelter of the curtained booth, while innocent country-folks were laughing loud at hackneyed old jests upon the other side of the curtain.

He lay stretched at full length upon the truss of hay, with a short pipe in his mouth, thinking over his strange fortunes, while Herr von Volterchoker, in a voice which would have scared mirthful thoughts away from the mind of a sensitive person, demanded of his audience when it was that a door was not a door, and entertained them with other conundrums of equal freshness and originality. Gervoise Dudley Palgrave lay and brooded over his lot in life.

He was the nephew of the late Lord Haughton; he was the cousin of the present earl; and he was dependent upon the patronage of Mr. Cadgers for a meal for himself and his only child. His father had been a thoughtless, reckless spendthrift, who had quarrelled with the late earl, and had, in vulgar parlance, gone to the dogs, leaving his son penniless to fight the hard battle of life, with nothing but contumely to expect from his grand relations.

The earl and his brother, George Augustus Davenant Palgrave, had hated each other, as brothers do sometimes hate each other, even in this enlightened age. George had married a farmer’s daughter secretly, and had been turned out of doors by his indignant father. Only one child was born from this marriage, and that child was Gervoise Dudley Palgrave. The mother died within a month of the boy’s birth, and the reckless, dissipated young father intrusted the infant to the care of Margery Melwood, the wife of one of the gamekeepers at Palgrave Chase.

All this was done secretly, and when the old earl, Gervoise Palgrave’s grandfather, saw two babies in Margery Melwood’s arms, as she stood in the sunshine at the lodge-door, he did not know but that the gamekeeper’s wife was the mother of twins. He certainly never guessed that the dark-eyed baby was the possible heir to Palgrave Chase.

The dissipated young father left his son in Margery Melwood’s care until the child was nearly ten years old. During all that time the two boys, Humphrey Melwood and Gervoise Dudley Palgrave, had lived together as brothers, sharing the same rustic pleasures, rifling birds’ nests in the bright spring weather, blackberry-gathering in the sheltered country lanes, hunting for hazel-nuts in the woods round the Chase, while my lord the young Viscount Castleford, the earl’s only son, played cricket with his aristocratic companions in the meadows at Eton.

This boy, Viscount Castleford, only stood between Humphrey Melwood’s foster-brother and a fortune.

By and by George Augustus Palgrave took his son to London, and the boy grew up in the West-end lodging-house, where his father lived a gay, bachelor life. The lad picked up his education how he might; and that education was by no means a good or a wise one, for George Augustus Davenant Palgrave’s friends were worthless, dissipated men, who had wasted their fortunes and taken to living by their wits; and it was from these men that Gervoise picked up his notions of right and wrong.

It may be imagined, therefore, that those notions of good and evil were by no means the clearest or the best. Gervoise was clever, brave, proud, sometimes generous; but he had the selfishness of the Palgrave race — that one dark stain which had sullied the character of every Palgrave since Aldroband, Baron of Haughton, had deserted the cause of Lancaster, and attached himself to the usurping house of York for his own advancement. Gervoise was selfish. His own happiness, his own ease, were always most dear to him. He married an ignorant, superficial girl for the love of her pretty face; and was angry with her when he found her a dull companion, a fretful, complaining fellow-traveller upon the dreary road of life.

It is possible that if Gervoise had been a better man, Agatha might never have fallen to the depth of degradation to which she had sunk when her husband lost patience with the miseries of his life, and deserted the woman who had become a horrible and loathsome burden to him. He lay now upon the truss of hay in Mr. Cadgers’s canvas habitation, thinking of the past, thinking of those early days in which he had wandered in Palgrave woods with Humphrey Melwood, unconscious of his aristocratic lineage, utterly ignorant that the young viscount, who rode past the windows of the lodge upon his well-groomed pony, was first cousin to the little ragamuffin who watched him admiringly from behind the lattice.

“The world has been a pleasant place for Sydney Palgrave, Earl of Haughton,” the strolling painter muttered to himself bitterly; “wealth and honour, a title, a noble estate, and a high-born bride. The child who is to be born at Palgrave Chase will have a different fate from my poor little one, whose best friend is Nancy Cadgers, the showman’s wife.”

He heard the bell ringing for the great event of the day, the steeplechase, in which Lord Haughton was to ride, and he went out, with his face half-hidden under his slouched felt hat.

The racecourse described an irregular circle upon the hilly, uneven ground of the heath. Gervoise Palgrave went down to a spot where there was a sharp curve in the course. A dangerous curve, people said, for many a horse, going at flying speed, had locked his pastern joints in the sudden turn.

At this spot, naturally dangerous, a double six-foot fence had been constructed, and beyond the second fence a ditch had been sunk. This was the worst bit of ground the gentlemen riders and their horses would have to encounter, and a group of the knowing ones had clustered down here, in preference to posting themselves upon the high ground near the stand, whence a bird’s-eye view of the course was to be had.

Here Gervoise stationed himself, with his folded arms resting upon the rough wooden barrier that bounded the race-course.

He had been standing there about five minutes, listening to the talk of the knowing ones gathered round him, but by no means interested in their discussion of the dangers of this particular spot, when he heard a pair of horses reined up suddenly upon the smooth turf behind him.

A woman’s voice said gently:

“This is the place, Bolton. This is the place which Lord Haughton says is the most dangerous. I will stop here, if you please.”

Gervoise Palgrave looked round. A close carriage, with a pair of splendid bays, had drawn up within a few paces of the wooden barrier. The Haughton arms were emblazoned upon the panels, the Haughton crest glistened upon the harness; and a woman, with a beautiful aristocratic face, was looking out of the open window.

This woman was Rosalind Countess of Haughton.

A girl, a few years younger than the countess, simply dressed, and looking like a humble companion, was seated opposite Lady Haughton.

The countess looked with sad anxious eyes at the double fence, the still water in the broad, yawning ditch.

“O Mary,” she said in a low, tremulous voice, which was audible to Gervoise, who stood close to the carriage, “O Mary, what a dangerous place, what a horrible place! I am convinced that something will happen.”

The girl smiled reassuringly.

“Pray do not think that, my lady,” she said. “The earl declared, again and again, that there was no real danger with such a horse as Devilshoof. But, indeed, my lady, it was very, very wrong of you to come. I don’t know what my lord would say if he knew that you were here.”

“I could not stop away,” the countess answered; “I could not endure the suspense, Mary. Think what agonies I must have suffered had I stayed at the Chase hour after hour waiting for Sydney’s return.”

“But if his lordship should see you?” remonstrated the companion.

“He will not see me. He will not think of me in the excitement of the race.”

At this moment another bell rang, and a shout from the crowd upon the grand stand announced that the horses had started.

Gervoise Palgrave could not withdraw his eyes from the face of the countess. The look of agony in that pale, anxious countenance had a strange fascination for him.

“They suffer, then, these prosperous people,” he said to himself; “these favourites of fortune suffer, as well as the outcasts who envy them.”

He heard the dull thud of the rushing hoofs upon the turf. He turned, and the first two riders passed him almost abreast.

One of these foremost riders was Lord Haughton.

He was a handsome young man, not unlike Gervoise Palgrave. He sat his horse magnificently, and his white-satin jacket, scarlet sleeves and cap flashed brightly in the sunshine as he flew by.

The two riders flew triumphantly over the fences; the horse’s hoofs seemed scarcely to touch the ground in the space between the first and second fence. The third rider was not quite so fortunate; he cleared the two fences, but his horse plumped down in the water with a loud splash, and the gentleman jockey was very nearly out of the saddle. He recovered himself very cleverly, and flew after the foremost riders amid the cheers of the bystanders.

The Countess of Haughton gave a faint, gasping cry as her husband cleared the fences.

“Thank Heaven!” she murmured, “thank Heaven!”

But one of the lookers-on said to his companion, “They go round again, don’t they?”

“Yes, they’re to ride twice round the course.”

There was a pause. With straining eyes the eager watchers of the race looked for the return of the riders. The interval was brief enough, but it seemed long to many of those impatient witnesses who had staked their money upon the issue of the race.

The dare-devil earl’s horse, Devilshoof, was the general favourite.

“Lord Haughton’s safe to win,” muttered one of the men near Gervoise; “Devilshoof is a good name for his horse, for I think he’s got pluck enough to ride old Nick himself.”

Again the rush of hoofs sounded upon the turf, and the three riders came thundering down the hill.

This time Lord Haughton was half a quarter of a mile ahead of his antagonists.

A great shout arose from all the lookers-on; a hoarse, triumphant cry; the thunder of a thousand voices:

“Devilshoof — Devilshoof wins! Ten to one on Devilshoof! Twenty to one on Devilshoof!”

The earl rode his horse at the fence. He cleared the first; his horse flew like a cat at the second, caught his hind hoofs in the light brushwood at the top of the fence, went plunging down head foremost into the water, and shot his rider off half-a-dozen yards ahead upon the turf.

The noble young rider in the white-satin jacket and scarlet sleeves fell like a log, and lay like a log.

A long hideous shriek rang through the summer air. There was a moment’s breathless pause; and then a sturdy farmer broke from the crowd, jumped across the barrier, and dragged the figure in the satin jacket off the course as the two horses came tearing over the fences.

Devilshoof made a feeble effort to scramble up out of the water, but fell again. The horse’s head flew up as if he had been stiffly reined-in — a sure symptom to the knowing ones that his back was broken.

The man who dragged the earl off the course laid him down on his back upon the grass; and the terrified crowd gathered round that prostrate figure.

A couple of medical men came hurrying down from the grand stand, whence they had seen the accident. One of them knelt down and laid his hand upon the young man’s breast. He turned very pale as he did so. Then he hastily opened the satin jacket, put his hand under the earl’s shirt, and listened.

He listened with his head lowered almost to the level of the prostrate man’s breast. It seemed as if every creature in that dense crowd waited with suspended breath to know the issue of the doctor’s examination.

Presently the medical man looked up.

“Get the countess away,” he said to the other doctor. “I saw her carriage just now, on the other side of the course. Get her away by any means. She must not know what has happened.”

“What is it — what is it? Is he dead?” gasped the foremost people in the crowd simultaneously.

The medical man did not answer them. He was talking to his colleague in a low voice.

“Death must have been instantaneous,” he said. “Concussion of the brain, no doubt. Get the countess away, my dear Morgan, and directly. The news will spread like wildfire, and if you don’t take care you’ll be too late.”

He was too late. A frantic woman with a ghastly face broke through the crowd as the medical man spoke. That woman was Rosalind Countess of Haughton. People recognised her, and tried to stop her; they might as well have endeavoured to stop a whirlwind.

She rushed into the open space round the dead man, and flung herself upon her knees by his side.

She looked at the livid face, the wide-open eyes, with such anguish in her own gaze as must have moved the hardest heart to pity. Then she clasped her hands and looked up at the two medical men. One of them was the doctor who attended all minor ailments in the household at Palgrave Chase.

“Is he dead?” she cried; “is he dead? It seems like death to me; but it can’t be — it can’t be! Mr. Andrews, Mr. Morgan, why do you stand there like that? Why don’t you do something for my husband? Are you mad? Why do you let him lie here? It’s only a fainting-fit. O, for pity’s sake, do something for him! I tell you he has only fainted! Why don’t you help him? Why—”

She broke into a wild, hysterical laugh, and fell senseless upon that lifeless body. The medical men lifted her up, and carried her across the course to her carriage, which had never moved; one of them got into the carriage with the countess, and laid her on the seat. Mary Wood, the companion, supported the unconscious woman in her arms.

“Home!” cried the doctor to the coachman; “and as fast as you can go.”

The windows were drawn up, the carriage drove away. There was no one to witness its departure. Everybody on that part of the course was crowded around the spot where the young lord lay.

Gervoise had been one of the first to rush to that spot. He stood foremost among the circle gathered round the motionless figure in the satin jacket, staring blankly down at the dead man’s face. His own face was almost as colourless as the livid countenance of the dead. He was stupefied by the suddenness of the catastrophe; and he could only stand there, silently staring; powerless to move, almost unable to think.

Far away he heard the braying of brazen trumpets, harsh and discordant, the clashing of cymbals, the beating of drums, the hoarse voices of the showmen clamouring to the crowd. The news of the accident had not yet circulated amongst the country people in the fair.

The stewards of the races consulted together, and it was arranged by general consent that there should be no more races upon that day; so much respect, at least, should be paid to the lord of Palgrave Chase.

Had it been a professional jockey who had been killed, it would have been, of course, quite a different matter. The awkward business would have been hushed up, and the day’s sport would have proceeded without interruption.

One of the doors belonging to the refreshment-rooms below the grand stand was torn from its hinges, and upon this rough litter the dead man was laid. They covered the lifeless figure with a carriage-rug, and carried their dismal burden away towards a short cut that led through the meadows to Avondale. The surgeon walked by the side of the litter.

The horse, Devilshoof, was shot through the head.

 

Chapter 6
The King Is Dead: Long Live The King!

Even after that gloomy procession had moved away, Gervoise Palgrave stood near the spot upon which his dead kinsman had been lying. Bewildered and terror-stricken, he had not yet been able to shake off the utter stupefaction of mingled surprise and horror, or to think calmly of the event that had just happened.

His cousin was dead. The principal barrier that had stood between himself and fortune was suddenly swept away; and what obstacle remained? Only the unborn child, the heir that was expected at Palgrave Chase.

If that child should be a girl, Gervoise Palgrave would be Earl of Haughton.

The young man passed his hand across his hot forehead.

“Great God,” he muttered to himself, “I think I must be going mad! A wretch tramping about the streets of London in search of bread only a few weeks ago; and perhaps the master of Palgrave Chase, and one of the first men in Warwickshire, to-morrow. Bah!” he cried suddenly, shrugging his shoulders with a contemptuous gesture, “am I a fool, that I stand here dreaming of these things? Is it like my luck that this should happen? No, the child will be a boy; and the joy-peal will ring for the birth of the new lord before the funeral bell has tolled for his father’s death.”

The crowd had dispersed after the departure of the men who carried the Earl of Haughton’s body, and Gervoise was alone in the little valley near the fatal double fence. He walked away from the racecourse to the loneliest part of the common, scarcely knowing whither he went; but he still heard the braying of brazen trumpets, the clashing of cymbals, the beating of drums, and the hoarse voices of the showmen clamouring to the crowd.

The tidings of the young lord’s death had penetrated to the remotest part of the common by this time; but still the fair went on. The country people had come a long way for their day’s pleasure, and were not to be cheated out of their enjoyment. The interruption and postponement of the races was a very good thing for the merchants and showmen, the circuses and merry-go-rounds, and the fair was doing splendidly.

Little Georgey Palgrave, kinsman to the dead man, was dancing gaily on the platform before Mr. Cadgers’s booth, with coloured ribbons round his boyish head.

It was twilight by the time Gervoise Palgrave returned to the tent of his employer. The troupe had eaten their dinner, and kind-hearted Nancy Cadgers had put aside a plate of cold ham and sausages, with half a loaf of bread, and some beer in a stone bottle, for the scene-painter; but Gervoise could eat nothing. He took two or three mouthfuls of bread, drank a brief draught of ale, and then lighted his pipe, and flung himself once more upon the truss of hay.

The show was still going on. He could hear the horses hoofs upon the sawdust, the slashing of whips, the tinkling of bells, the merry laughter and loud applause of the audience, and the “Houp là, loupe!” of the ring-master. Then the horses rested, and the gloomy clown, Herr von Volterchoker, amused the public.

The noise seemed deafening and bewildering to the overheated brain of Gervoise Palgrave. He clasped his hands upon his forehead and tried to think; but he could not collect his thoughts. A confusion of light and colour danced before his dazzled eyes. It seemed to him as if the horses in the ring were rushing round and round in his own distempered brain. He had lain like this for about an hour, smoking his short, blackened pipe, and trying to think, when the canvas that separated this corner of the booth from the ring was divided, and a man’s face looked through the division; a dark, sinister-looking countenance, framed with grizzled hair. It was the face of Herr von Volterchoker, the dismal clown. He watched Gervoise for some minutes before he spoke; but the young man was quite unconscious of the watchful gaze of those black, fierce-looking eyes.

“You’re uncommonly quiet in there,” the clown said at last.

Gervoise looked up with a start.

“Yes,” he said absently; “I’m tired.”

“You seem so. Have you heard the news?”

“What news?”

“Why, the news that’s just come to the fair. There’s a new master at Palgrave Chase; a master that isn’t two hours old yet.”

“A boy!” gasped Gervoise.

“Yes, her ladyship’s baby is a boy. The news of the young vermin’s birth is upon everybody’s lips.”

“Mr. Merriman, Mr. Merriman!” cried a voice from the ring. “Come here, Mr. Merriman, and tell these ladies and gentlemen what is the difference between my wife’s tin teakettle and the Hemperor of Roosia!”

The clown closed the canvas division and went back into the ring. Gervoise Palgrave covered his face with his hands and sobbed aloud.

Then he knew, for the first time, that he had hoped to succeed to his kinsman’s title and fortune. After his first horror at the earl’s sudden death, hope had sprung up in his heart — a wild desperate hope, that had almost maddened him. His manhood gave way before this horrible disappointment.

He sat motionless, with his face buried in his hands, for some time. Then he was aroused by little soft fingers, which twined themselves about his own, and tried to pull his hands away from his face.

“Papa, papa!” cried a childish voice.

Gervoise uncovered his head and looked up. The boy George stood before him in his fantastical dress, smiling at his father.

“I want to go to sleep, papa,” he said; “I’m so tired, and my new mammy told me I was to come to you.”

The child called the friendly Nancy Cadgers his new mammy. The showman’s wife had been very good to George, who was not accustomed to kindness — from a woman.

Gervoise took the boy up in his arms, wrapped him in a shabby greatcoat, and laid him down upon the hay.

“The new-born earl lies in a cradle sheltered with curtains of silk and lace, I daresay,” he muttered to himself, as he watched the child’s face; “but my boy is a beggar’s brat, and is glad to sleep on such a bed as a dog might lie upon.”

He filled and lighted his pipe again, and sat down upon an empty beer-cask. He watched the sleeping child with a gloomy face. Dark, angry thoughts were busy in his breast. He hated the young countess and her two-hours-old babe.

It was past ten o’clock, but the uproar of the fair was louder than ever. The horses were still cantering round amidst the sawdust in the ring, the trumpets were braying, the drums sounding. Gervoise Palgrave sat in the same attitude for nearly half an hour, smoking slowly, and watching his sleeping child.

Suddenly the canvas which divided the booth from the open common was lifted, and a young man, hot, breathless, and panting, burst into the tent.

Gervoise sprang to his feet. The young man was Humphrey Melwood, the under-gamekeeper of Palgrave Chase. His face was flushed, his eyes were bright with excitement. He flung himself upon his knees on the ground, and kissed Gervoise Palgrave’s hands.

“Master!” he cried, “brother! I’ve run here like a madman. I can scarce get breath to speak. My wish has come, Lord Haughton — Lord Haughton! There’s nobody but me knows you’re here, and I’m first to tell you — I’m first to cry huzza for the new master of Palgrave Chase!”

Humphrey Mel wood raised his voice as he said this. Once more the canvas was divided and the face of the clown appeared in the narrow opening. But the eager face of the spy was unperceived by the two men; Gervoise and his foster-brother stood with their backs towards Herr von Volterchoker. For an instant Gervoise stood staring vacantly at his foster-brother.

“You are mad, Humphrey,” he cried half angrily; “you are mad!”

“No, not mad, Master Gervoise, but like to be,” answered the young man. “You are Earl of Haughton! Last night you were walking about Avondale afraid to show yourself in your shabby clothes, wild and desperate, talking about ending your days in a river; to-night you are the master of Palgrave Chase. The poor countess is dying; the child died within an hour of its birth.”

“Dead!”

“Yes, Master Gervoise. Ah, my lord — I mustn’t call you Master Gervoise any longer — the days are gone for ever when I might call you brother.”

“No, no, Humphrey — no, no,” answered Gervoise. “If this is all true — if it is not some distempered dream, as it seems to me it must be — why then I will be more your brother than ever. Adversity is a hard master, Humphrey; and those who suffer are apt to think very little of the sufferings of others. But prosperity softens a man’s heart. I’ll be a true friend to you, Humphrey.”

He held out his hand as he spoke, and grasped the horny fingers of the gamekeeper.

“Bless you for those words, Master Gervoise! The world will be all at your feet now, and money’s very powerful; but for all it’s so powerful, there are some things it can’t do, and those are just the very things that a faithful friend can do. You see this arm, Master Gervoise,” cried the gamekeeper, stretching out his muscular right arm and clenching his powerful fist; “there’s many about Avondale as could tell you that it isn’t a weak one. If there’s anyone that wronged you, I’d as lief strike him down with that arm as I’d crush a worm that came in my pathway. It’s not many people I care for, Master Gervoise, but there’s something more than common in the love I bear you; I must have sucked it in with my mother’s milk, I suppose, for it seems as if it was mixed with the blood that runs in my veins, and I think every drop of that blood would turn to liquid fire if I knew that anyone had injured you. Heaven help them that harmed you, that’s all! Heaven keep ’em safe out of my pathway!”

The young man’s eyes flamed as he spoke, but Gervoise Palgrave scarcely heeded him. He was standing quite still, looking down at the child asleep upon the hay.

“For his sake,” he muttered— “if I were not thankful for my own sake, how glad I ought to be for him! — I will try and be a good man, and deserve the fortune that has come to me.” He said this to himself; then he cried aloud:

“Come out into the air, Humphrey; I shall choke, I shall faint, if I stay in this stifling place.”

He lifted the canvas and went out, followed by the gamekeeper. The naphtha lamps were flaming against the purple of the sky. The thousand voices of the clamorous crowd mingled in one loud uproar.

As the two young men left the tent, Herr von Volterchoker parted the canvas, and came through the opening into the place where little Georgey lay asleep.

 

Chapter 7
Lost

The new lord of Haughton and his foster-brother walked away from the crowded avenues where the country people were clustered about the stalls. They left the noise and confusion of the fair behind them, and went down into the hollow in which Sydney Earl of Haughton met his untimely death.

“It seems to me as if it couldn’t be true” Gervoise said; “it’s too sudden, too strange.”

“But it’s true, Master Gervoise, for all that,” answered Humphrey. “Mother went up to the great house when she heard that my lord was killed, and my lady brought home in a dying state, as folks said. She went up to the house, and she was in the servants’-hall when the news of the baby’s birth was brought from my lady’s room, and she was there when the news of his death came, less than an hour afterwards. Poor little fellow, he was born before his time, the doctors say, and the countess was said to be dying when I came away. I’m sorry for her, poor lady. She was proud, but she was kind and charitable, for all that, and she loved the very ground my lord walked on. If he’d listened to her he wouldn’t have ridden Devilshoof to-day, for they say she went down upon her knees to him to prevent him; but he wouldn’t listen to her. So it was his selfishness that caused his death.”

Selfishness, the one blemish upon the character of almost every scion of the house of Palgrave; selfishness, which was now paramount in the breast of Gervoise, now lord of Palgrave Chase, for he could not think of the heart-broken wife’s despair, the young mother’s bitter agony; he could only think of himself, his own unparalleled good fortune.

“Nobody must know that I have been down here, Humphrey,” he said; “nobody must ever know that I have fallen so low as to be the companion of a wandering showman and his vulgar troupe. Messrs. Peck and Featherby, of Gray’s Inn, were the Earl of Haughton’s lawyers. They knew my father well, and they have known me from my boyhood. They have the certificate of my fathers marriage, my own birth, and all documents necessary to my identification. I shall go up to London by the first train to-morrow morning, and go straight to them. But I cannot take Georgey with me. The child would be a hindrance to me at such a time as this. Will you take him to your mother’s cottage, Humphrey, and look after him until I come back to Warwickshire?”

“Will I, Master Gervoise?” cried the gamekeeper. “Ay, that I will, and watch over him as I would over the crown-jewels if I was trusted with the care of them.”

“Thanks, Humphrey. I know I can trust you. You talked about money last night, and I refused your offer; tonight I’ll borrow a couple of sovereigns of you, if you have got so much about you.”

“I have, Master Gervoise,” answered the young man; “I’m a steady chap now, though I have been such a precious wild one, and I’ve saved a pound or two out of my wages.” The gamekeeper took a washleather purse from his pocket, unrolled it, and produced three sovereigns.

“Three’s better than two, Master Gervoise,” he said; you’d better take the lot.”

“I will, Humphrey,” answered Gervoise Palgrave, “for I can afford to pay you fifty-fold when I come back. This will take me up to London; Peck and Featherby will lend me plenty of money when I get there. You’ll take care of the boy, Humphrey. He’s very dear to me.”

“Then he shall be dearer to me than if he was my own, Master Gervoise,” cried the gamekeeper.

“You may as well take him home to-night, then,” said his foster-brother; “these people have been very good to him, and I shall take care to reward them for their goodness, by and by. But I don’t want them to know who I am, or any thing about me; so I should like to get the boy away quietly.”

The earl and his foster-brother walked back towards Mr. Cadgers’s booth.

The glory of the fair was over now, for it was past midnight; the fires were dying slowly out; many of the lights had been extinguished. The crowd had thinned; only drunkards and dissipated men and women, the inveterate and insatiable pleasure-seekers, still lingered in the alleys between the stalls, and in the open spaces before the shows.

Mr. Cadgers had shut up his establishment for the night, and the front of the circus was dark.

As Gervoise and Humphrey came within a few paces of the canvas opening at the back of the booth, they saw a tall, gaunt figure coming towards them, and the Earl of Haughton recognised his late associate, Herr von Volterchoker, the clown.

He came up to them and looked at Gervoise with an expression of surprise.

“Where’s the boy?” he exclaimed.

“What boy?”

“What boy! — why little Georgey, of course.”

“Where should he be,” returned Gervoise, “except where I left him — on the truss of hay in there?” He pointed to the booth as he spoke.

“Didn’t you take him with you, then?” cried the clown.

“No,” answered Gervoise, his face blanched with sudden fear. “Why do you ask me?” he cried; “the boy is in there, I tell you. I left him there a quarter of an hour ago, asleep upon the hay.”

“He’s not there now, then,” answered the clown. “Mrs. Cadgers wants to put him to bed with the other lads, and has been looking for him everywhere. I told her you were out, and I thought, of course, you’d taken the child with you.”

“No, no, no!” exclaimed Gervoise; “I left him there asleep. He must have got up and gone out into the fair to look at the other shows. He can’t be far away. You go one way, Volterchoker, there’s a good chap, while I go the other; we shall find him in five minutes, I daresay.”

“I daresay we shall,” answered the clown. “O, by the bye, there’s been a woman here inquiring for you.”

“A woman!” exclaimed Gervoise; “a woman inquiring for me?”

“Yes; and very anxious she seemed to see you.”

“Did she ask for Mr. Jarvis?”

“No; she asked for some such name as Gil — stay! — Gilbert,” answered the clown, speaking slowly, and watching Gervoise’s face as he spoke.

Gervoise Gilbert?”

“Yes, Gervoise Gilbert.”

“Was she a young woman with black eyes and hair?”

“She was.”

“Was it before you missed the child or after, that you saw this woman?”

“About five minutes before. She said she’d wait to see you, and I left her standing close to the opening in the canvas. I went round to the front of the circus to help Cadgers put out the lights. When I came back the woman was gone.”

“And the child was gone, too?” cried Gervoise.

“Yes; it was after that we missed the boy.”

“Then I understand it all!” exclaimed Gervoise Palgrave passionately. “The child has been stolen — my boy has been stolen by—”

He stopped abruptly.

“By whom, Master Gervoise?” asked Humphrey Melwood.

“By the person who is the worst enemy he has in the world. Look you, Humphrey, and you, Volterchoker,” cried Gervoise impetuously, “you can both help me in this business. That woman has stolen the child; but she cannot have got far away yet. If we all three go different ways we may find her. You will recognise her, Volterchoker. You may know her easily, Humphrey — a dark woman with a fair-haired child. Run, run like good fellows. You sha’n’t find me slow to reward you.”

The three men separated. They went into the alleys between the gingerbread stalls, they searched the open spaces before the booths, they looked into every place where it was likely the woman might have hidden, they made inquiries of every creature they met; but their efforts were useless — they could discover no trace of the woman or the child. They wandered about, meeting one another every now and then, and communicating their bad fortune. They walked about until two o’clock in the morning. Every light was extinguished; it seemed as if every creature except these three men slept peacefully under the shelter of the canvas booths.

Herr von Volterchoker was as indefatigable as either of his companions. He made inquiries right and left of his comrades in the fair. Nearly everybody knew him and answered him civilly, and tried to give him what help they could; and so, indeed, did they show themselves willing to aid all three searchers. There was only one man, a surly-looking Italian, who was grinding away at a barrel-organ, and putting a tired monkey through a series of grotesque performances, who answered at all uncivilly when Gervoise Palgrave questioned him.

At last, when the Italian had left off grinding, and the monkey was at rest — when the silent tents were as quiet beneath the moonlight as the ghostly camp of some phantom army, and the solemn sound of Avondale church clock striking two floated up to the hilly common on the soft autumn air — the three men abandoned all hope, and went back towards Mr. Cadgers’s booth.

“I thank you both,” Gervoise Palgrave said; “and before a week is out, I will reward you both. I know the person who has taken the child, and, by the heaven above us, she shall be made to restore him to me! Good-night, Humphrey.”

He held out his hand to the gamekeeper, who grasped it warmly in both his own.

“Cheer up, Master Gervoise,” he said; “the child will be found, never doubt. But where will you sleep to-night?”

“I don’t suppose I shall sleep at all, Humphrey, for the matter of that,” Gervoise answered. “I shall go down to Avondale at once, and put this business into the hands of the police.”

“Then I’ll go with you, Mr. Gervoise,” said the gamekeeper.

The two men went away together down the hill and through the meadows, into the quiet little town. They went straight to the police-station, and knocked up the officials. Gervoise stated his case, described the woman and child, and told the police-officer to issue a bill, offering a reward of a hundred pounds for the finding of the boy. Gervoise told the man who he was, under a pledge of secrecy; and Humphrey Melwood, who was well known to the police-officer, corroborated his foster-brother. The first glimmer of morning light was gray in the eastern sky by the time Gervoise went back to the booth upon the common.

Herr von Volterchoker lay fast asleep upon a heap of loose straw in a corner of the circus when Gervoise entered the tent; but he had not been asleep long. He had returned through the silent alleys in the fair during the new earl’s absence, and had found a feeble light glimmering in the caravan of the Italian organ-grinder. The clown had stopped at the door of this tent, talking to the Italian itinerant for about a quarter of an hour, and had then gone slowly back to Mr. Cadgers’s establishment.

When the sun rose next morning, and the traders and showmen made their preparations for the second day’s fair, there was no trace of the organ-grinder and the monkey. He had departed from Avondale common in the early morning, with the organ and the monkey, in his gaudily-painted little caravan.

Early upon that second day of the fair, Gervoise travelled up to London, and went straight to the offices of Messrs. Peck and Featherby. They had not heard of the accident at Avondale, and it was as much as they could do to believe Gervoise Palgrave’s account of the steeplechase, and the death of the new-born heir. But they did believe him at last, and congratulated him most heartily upon his unexpected good fortune. It mattered very little to Messrs. Peck and Featherby whether their client was Sydney Earl of Haughton, or Gervoise Earl of Haughton, so long as he gave them plenty of law-business to do, and paid long bills of costs without any vulgar examination or taxation of the same.

So there had been a sudden turn in the wheel of Fortune, and the penniless outcast was now the acknowledged master of Palgrave Chase; but a feeling of bitterness was mingled with his triumph, a drop of poison in the wine of life. The child for whose sake he had often prayed for fortune was lost to him, for a time at least; perhaps for ever. The boy had fallen into the power of that cruel and drunken mother, and if the new Earl of Haughton acknowledged his only son, he must also acknowledge his drunken wife.

The selfishness of the Palgrave race triumphed even over the feelings of the father.

“Better that I should lose the son I love than that I should burden myself with the wife I hate,” thought Gervoise Palgrave, as he drove away from Gray’s Inn with a cheque for a hundred pounds in his pocket, advanced by Messrs. Peck and Featherby, for his immediate requirements.

 

Chapter 8
A New Life And A New Love

The funeral of the Earl and Countess of Haughton was one of the grandest ceremonials ever beheld by the wondering eyes of Avondale within this present generation. Not since Elizabeth of England and her attendant train of all the flower of English nobility had ridden down the street, had there been a grander scene than these solemn funeral pomps furnished for the curious townsfolk, and the vast crowd of spectators who pressed into the town from all the country side.

The earl and his countess had been liked, and the regret felt for their sudden and melancholy fate was sincere and profound; but those who mourned for the king that was dead, were none the less interested in the sovereign who reigned in his place, and eager were the glances cast at Gervoise Palgrave, seventh Earl of Haughton, the chief mourner in that solemn train of sable chariots and horses, and plume-surmounted, silver-blazoned hearse.

The crowd pronounced the new earl a true Palgrave, as indeed he was, to the very core of his heart. Within a month of the funeral he took possession of Palgrave Chase, quietly, and without unnecessary demonstration of his new authority. The old servants he retained without exception. Humphrey Melwood’s position he improved so far as that very self-willed individual would allow it to be improved, and this was to no very great extent.

“Let me serve you, sir; that’s the only favour I ask, and that’s the only favour I’ll receive,” said the young man resolutely.

Gervoise improved the gothic lodge with some additional conveniences for the comfort of his old nurse, to whom he presented a hundred-pound bank-note to buy her a new gown, as he said; and the dame, bewildered by the idea of such vast wealth, cried over and kissed him, declaring that she had always prophesied his greatness.

There are few nobler places in England than the mansion, park, and woods known as Palgrave Chase. A great quadrangular edifice of gray stone, surmounted at every angle by a massive gothic tower. On the southern and principal side, a range of three terraces, with stone balustrades, and broad flights of shallow steps. Within the quadrangle, a noble court, stone paved, with a sculptured fountain, Neptune and a group of sea-horses, in the centre. On the northern side, a range of gothic windows, terminating at each extremity with an oriel in the tower, looking down upon a broad rushing stream which crosses the park and woods of Palgrave Chase on its way to join the Avon.

Of this grand old mansion, of park and woods, of farmlands and homesteads, the leases whereof filled three large tin boxes, in the iron safes of the Palgrave muniment-room, was Gervoise master; he who had found it a hard and difficult thing to pay the weekly rent of a garret in St. Giles’s.

The sense of pride and rapture which went with this sudden, bewildering change of fortune, somewhat deadened the pain of that one bitter grief which had come upon him in the very hour of his triumph; but despite of this, the grief was poignant. His son, the boy who had been so sweet a care, so dear a companion in the day of his trouble, was lost to him in the day of his joy. By that broad stream glancing silvery bright beneath the dark foliage of forest-trees, those two should have wandered hand in hand; and the father paced the green turf alone, despondent. How sweetly the dear familiar childish voice would have echoed in those long stately corridors. But the corridors were silent as the grave, and the father felt that in all their splendour they were gloomy.

The earl omitted to take no step that could be taken to recover the missing child; but all his efforts were fruitless. Skilful detectives searched London for the little one, whom they were taught to recognise by the initials tattooed upon his wrist; but they sought in vain. In his intercourse with the Avondale police-constable, Gervoise had taken care to conceal his relationship to the child. In his intercourse with the metropolitan police he was still more cautious, and concealed his own identity, securing their confidence by liberal advances in the present, and their hearty cooperation by munificent promises for the future. All was without avail. In the great labyrinth of life the boy Georgey had vanished utterly from the ken of skilled detectives.

For a time, Gervoise Palgrave mourned his child honestly. He refused all invitations from those new county friends who had been so “uncommonly fond of that thundering rascal, but remarkably gentlemanly fellow, his father, you know,” and wanted “to do the civil thing for the fellow, you know; and introduce him to the big-wigs, and so on, you know.” All these invitations from strangers eager to do him service, Lord Haughton politely refused. He lived shut up in the luxurious suite of apartments that had been fitted up for the last earl, whose meerschaum-pipes he smoked, and whose horses he rode; for the last master of the Chase had not been given to pious meditation, or philosophical argument on the uncertainty of life, and had died intestate, whereby his personal, as well as his real, property passed to the cousin of whom he knew so little.

For a time, Gervoise mourned honestly; but with the thought of his son’s disappearance was ever mingled the dread of his wife’s reappearance.

“She knows nothing of my altered fortunes,” he said to himself, “or she’d be here, soon enough, to drag me into the mud. And to think that she should have traced me to Avondale, should have been there that very night, and should have turned her back upon me, ignorant of my altered fortunes!”

Time passed, and the poignancy of his grief lessened, and this intense feeling was followed by an utter weariness, a sense of the emptiness of his new life. The cup at first had seemed all sweetness save for that one drop of poison. Now it seemed vapid and tasteless, if not all poison. To live in that handsome house; to dine off plate that had been in the Palgrave plate-room since the Restoration, before which historic event it had been pledged to Dutch money-lenders for the service of the king; to ride a horse worth three hundred pounds; to sleep in the shade of black-velvet curtains whose heraldic embroideries in gold bullion and rose silk had been worked in the days of Queen Bess; — all these things after a little while ceased to delight the soul of Gervoise Palgrave. There was a void somewhere.

Early in November he determined to try whether this void in his soul could be filled by the pleasures of the chase. He appeared in the hunting-field, where he followed the Palgrave hounds, which he had pledged himself to maintain in all perfection, and showed himself a very fair horseman.

The county people were delighted. They declared that his seclusion during the period of mourning for the late earl and countess did credit alike to his head and heart; for no one supposed that the new earl could have any special grief of his own to keep him in the solitude of his ancestral halls.

His appearance in the hunting-field was taken as a sign that the period of his seclusion was ended. He was besieged with invitations; and one of these, in a most evil hour, he accepted.

It was an invitation to a hunting-breakfast at Sir Langley Hurst’s, a man of some standing in the county, but a man who owed his wealth and title to commerce. Sir Langley was a great man in the iron trade. His father, and his grandfather before him, had made fortunes out of iron, and his elder brother had died three years before this date, leaving a million of money — or an amount which Avondale and its neighbourhood were pleased to call a million — to an only child, a girl of nineteen.

This youthful millionaire, Ethel Hurst, resided under her uncle’s roof, and was the darling of that wealthy baronet’s household. Sir Langley boasted a patriarchal family of sons and daughters; amongst them there was one to whom Ethel was something dearer than cousin. This was Stephen Hurst, the baronet’s second son, who had taken high honours at Oxford, and for whom his father’s political influence had secured the living of Pendon, a pleasant settlement, something betwixt an overgrown village and a newly-blossoming town, between Avondale and Hyford Hall, the bran-new red-brick Elizabethan mansion of the Hursts.

Ethel’s wealth was partly derived from a very fine agricultural estate in the county, certain frontages and odd lots whereof were just beginning to ripen into building-land, and partly from very considerable investments in Consols. A finer fortune does not often fall to the lot of a light-hearted, unsophisticated damsel of nineteen, whose personal expenditure, inclusive of bounteous charities, had never exceeded five hundred a-year.

For Stephen Hurst’s poor, Ethel was the sweetest of ministering angels; for Stephen himself she was but too sweet, too lovely, too dear, since his clear perception had long ago enabled him to make a bitter discovery in the fact that, however dear Ethel might be to him, he was no more to Ethel than — a cousin. Sir Langley’s fondest hope had been that Ethel and his eldest son, Gordon Palgrave, godson of the old Lord Haughton, and captain in a crack Hussar regiment, would make a match of it, and thus unite the two branches of the Hursts, and the fine properties of Hyford and Culverly.

But the paternal scheme was not destined to prosper. Gordon Palgrave, the handsome young captain of Hussars, whose name, in the choice language of his comrades, “stunk of money,” had been spoiled by garrison belles of the fast and furious order, and stigmatised his pretty cousin with the vile epithet “muffish.”

“Goes about with flannel and tea and tracts to queer old parties in cottages,” said the young Brummel; “teaches in national schools, and pats the dirty little ruffians’ heads, and that kind of thing. Couldn’t stand that in a wife, you know. Course, man who marries must prepare himself for a good deal; wife running away with the only fellow he likes, you know, and that kind of thing, which really seems very hard upon a fellow to lose the only fellow he can get on with, in that disreputable manner; and ’pon my soul, a woman who can rob a man of his best friend must be a regular out-and-outer, lost to all sense of honour, and that kind of thing. But if a man’s wife begins with poking her nose into stuffy old cottages, where the dooce is she to end?”

To Ethel, the brilliant captain appeared a strange compound of idiotcy and impertinence. His eyeglass, his carefully-waxed moustache, his all-pervading odour of jockey-club, his contempt for everything under the sun except some half-dozen “fellows,” his bosom friends, — all these attributes of the modem young man were alike distasteful to her, and she always fancied the atmosphere clearer when the captain’s leave expired, and he withdrew his august presence from the paternal halls.

Fancy-free as the famed virgin sung by Shakespeare — who, by the way, never seems to have been in that blissful condition for one hour of her anxious life — is described to have been in the poet’s politic compliment, Ethel Hurst roamed the well-kept gardens of Hyford Hall, until that fateful day when Gervoise Palgrave, who had refused invitations from men of much higher standing, made his social début at Sir Langley’s hunting-breakfast.

Whether it was love at first sight who shall say? First sight showed Lord Haughton one of the fairest faces he had ever looked upon, a face as innocently bright as Milton’s Eve in the first bloom of her purity, a face in which loveliness of soul shone predominant over earthly beauty of tint and outline, though these were almost perfection. For some time Gervoise Palgrave was unconscious of any peril to his own peace of mind in the admiration which he felt for Ethel Hurst. Had he not a right to admire this lovely image of girlish innocence, just as freely as he admired the well-chosen pictures and statues wherewith Sir Langley had decorated his spacious rooms and broad Elizabethan corridors. He told himself that he had a right so to admire this fair candid girl, who met him always with the same sweet smile of welcome, and he told himself that the pleasure he felt in her society arose from no deeper feeling.

“What can she, or any other woman upon this earth, ever be to me,” he thought, “nearer or dearer than the beauty of a picture or a statue — something to admire from a distance? I had my dream and my fancy, and have paid the bitter price of that fool’s paradise which I chose for my earthly heaven. That’s all past and done with. And as for the folly men call love — je m’en moque! When the grim old suits of armour at the Chase come down from their pedestals, and go out to make love, I may be caught a second time. But it shall not be until then.”

When a man beguiles his reason with such sophistries as these, it is a pretty sure sign that he is already gone past redemption on the broad high-road which leads to the Temple of Folly. Gervoise Palgrave deceived himself wilfully, obstinately, madly shutting his eyes to the truth. He told himself that if he liked to come to Hyford Hall, it was for Sir Langley’s genial society, for the captain’s billiard-playing, for Stephen’s intellectual conversation, for the pleasant county folks he met there, for the exciting sport of archery, in which the Misses Adelina, Sophia, Bessie, and Gertrude Hurst excelled; for anything and everything except the real magnetic influence which drew him to the place.

“Why should I shut myself up in those dreary rooms at the Chase when the Hursts are always glad to have me with them?” he said to himself, quite ignoring the fact that his predilection for the society of the Hursts was giving much offence to his other friends amongst the county gentry. By and by this fact was made known to him, and at Christmas he gave a ball, a very grand affair, at which all the best people in the county were present, and at which her most splendid majesty the Marchioness of Stepletour kindly presided as hostess. Ethel was the acknowledged belle, though perhaps the fact would scarcely have been so readily admitted if the young lady had not been an heiress, and a landowner of some importance. On the night of this festival, did Gervoise for the first time discover the construction which had been put upon his devotion to the Hurst household.

“He is going to marry one of those bold Hurst girls,” said a young lady of the genus fast, close to his elbow, as he was struggling for an ice in the crowded refreshment-room. I only hope it is not the one with the big hook-nose, Adelina; she’s the most stuck up, purse-proud creature. That rich cousin of theirs, Ethel, is engaged to Stephen Hurst, the rector of Pendon; awfully High Church, you know, he is, and goodness knows what lengths he’ll go when he gets Ethel’s money. I know he wants to introduce choral services at Pendon; but the Pendon people are disgustingly Low, and I don’t believe they’d ever stand it.”

Engaged to Stephen Hurst! The quick, angry throbbing of his heart told Gervoise Palgrave in this moment, if he had never known as much before, that Ethel was something more to him than a picture or a statue. In this one moment he knew that he loved her, and loved her passionately.

“I will know the truth at once,” he muttered, half beside himself with jealous rage; “she can never be anything to me, no, God help me! I know that. But I will not be duped and fooled by her sweet looks, her downcast eyes; I will ascertain from her own lips whether she loves this man.”

Yes, he loved her, and had allowed himself to think his affection was returned. The remembrance of the looks and tones that had nourished this sweet delusion came back to him sharply. Could that innocent-seeming girl be a consummate coquette after all?

He remembered words and looks of Stephen’s that had been something more than cousinly — anxious, watchful looks that followed Ethel’s light steps; earnest tones, expressive of more than kindred’s common affection.

The next dance was a waltz, which the master of Palgrave Chase and Ethel Hurst were to dance together. After the dance he led her into a picture-gallery under the pretext of showing her the old family portraits, and there, with a strange abruptness, asked her the portentous question, whether she was or was not the promised wife of her cousin Stephen.

The heiress blushed crimson, paused for a moment, utterly embarrassed by the sudden question, and then replied in the negative.

“Thank God!” exclaimed Lord Haughton with intense feeling; and then they both stood silent, motionless, the girl’s changing colour, downcast eyelids, and tremulous lips betraying but too plainly her cherished secret.

The temptation of that moment was too much for Gervoise Palgrave’s fortitude. He bent over the sweet face he loved, clasped the shrinking form in his arms with a sudden, passionate embrace, and imprinted one despairing kiss upon the pure brow. Thus far, passion had its way with him; then cold, stern, cruel reason came to the rescue.

“My own one, my darling, forgive me!” he said, releasing the offended girl. “I was mad. For pity’s sake forgive me. I have no right to speak of my love to you; no right — I—”

A sudden influx of waltzers in the gallery, as the last chords of the waltz sounded from the orchestra, interrupted him, and he was not unthankful for the interruption. He paced the deserted ballroom that night when the last of the long line of carriages had driven away, and pondered on his folly, his madness.

What could he do? Fly from this splendid home, go abroad, to Central Africa, to the farthest mountain-range of India, anywhere to escape his hopeless love, to hide his dishonour.

“If I were free!” he said to himself again and again; “O God, of what use to me are lands and wealth without my liberty? The poorest hedger and ditcher upon my estate is free to claim the girl who loves him, but not I. I must stand aloof, and let her think me the basest of men. I have said too much — and too little.”

 

Chapter 9
A Precautionary Step

There was one who had discovered Gervoise Palgrave’s secret before the young man had owned it to himself, and that one close observer was Stephen Hurst, rector of Pendon, and devoted worshipper of his lovely cousin. He had pleaded his cause, and received his answer, a sad sentence of condemnation; but he was too generous to resent the offence against his self-esteem, too pure of mind and noble of heart to be angry with the girl who had refused to make his life happy.

He stood aloof, earnestly anxious for her welfare. All that a brother could do to demonstrate affection for a beloved sister he did still. He was still her friend, her counsellor, her spiritual adviser and faithful ally in all good works. He saw that the earl loved her, and he resigned himself, after a sharp mental contest, to the thought that he beheld his successful rival in this patrician suitor — young, handsome, wealthy — in every attribute and in all surroundings a brilliant alliance for the orphan heiress.

“Lord Haughton is just the sort of man whom women admire,” he said to himself, and every woman is at heart a Tory. Rank and ancient name always have the charm of romance in the eyes of an inexperienced girl.”

After a long period of patient watchfulness, the day came in which Stephen saw but too clearly that his cousin Ethel loved Gervoise Palgrave, Lord Haughton. Until that decisive hour hope had lurked in the young man’s breast, unsuspected by himself. That hope had made life very sweet to him; now existence must become most bitter.

But why did not the Earl of Haughton declare his love? Stephen Hurst was utterly perplexed by a reticence that seemed unaccountable. That Gervoise loved Ethel was obvious to every eye that beheld them together. After the ball at the Chase, where the earl and Ethel Hurst had appeared for the first time in public together, there was no one in the county so blind as to attribute his visits to Hyford to any attachment for the hook-nosed Adelina. Sir Langley would have preferred to see one of his daughters elevated to the peerage; but as Providence had denied him this rapture, he was contented, and indeed grateful, for the assurance that his niece would wear a countess’s coronet, and be in a position to launch her cousins in the first circle of London society.

But, in the mean time, why this delay? The earl was in love, the earl was beloved. Why did he not pronounce the portentous words that would ally him for ever to the house of Hurst? His delay puzzled everyone; but most of all did it disturb Stephen Hurst, whose clear logical mind, ever anxious where Ethel was concerned, began to be filled with suspicion of Gervoise Palgrave.

There must be a mystery somewhere, a secret reason for the earl’s reserve. There was something to find out. Stephen had sworn to serve his cousin with more than a brother’s devotion. It was his duty, therefore, to watch this man whom she loved — this man who loved her, and who yet hesitated to claim her for his wife.

While his conduct was exciting this wonder, Gervoise Palgrave suddenly left Warwickshire, and went up to London, where he took up his abode at a second-class hotel near Blackfriars-bridge. He chose the house because it was a busy place in all seasons, frequented by commercial men — a place where his coming and going would excite no attention, where no one would take the trouble to inquire who or what he was.

He spent two hours on the first day of his stay in town at the office of a pettifogging solicitor in Clement’s Inn. From Clement’s Inn he went to Printing-house-square.

He put an advertisement in the Times newspaper. He availed himself of the universal mediator, the only go-between that never betrays, the only fetcher and carrier that can safely be trusted. In the next morning’s paper the following advertisement appeared at the top of the second column in the first page:

“Agatha G., go to Mr. Bagswell, solicitor, Clements Inn, and you will hear of your husband, whose circumstances have undergone considerable improvementG. G.”

This advertisement appeared in the Times, not one morning only, but for twenty consecutive mornings. Throughout the twenty days during which the advertisement appeared, Gervoise remained in London.

There was no answer to the advertisement. The Earl of Haughton called two or three times in Clement’s Inn. Mr. Bagswell, the lawyer, only knew his client by the name of Gilbert. Gervoise had employed him in some money-lending transaction two years before, and that was all the intercourse there had ever existed between the two men. Mr. Bagswell was a safe person, therefore, to employ upon this occasion.

“My wife must be dead,” Gervoise said to the solicitor, after the advertisement had appeared for the twentieth time. “If she were living, you would have seen her here before this.” Mr. Bagswell shook his head.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Mrs. Gilbert mayn’t have seen the Times.”

“Everybody sees the Times.”

“Yes, every man of business, not every woman. What do women care about the news of the day? If an earthquake was to swallow up the whole of America, the news of it wouldn’t interest a woman half as much as the price of her next-door neighbour’s last new bonnet.”

Gervoise Palgrave sighed. He had begun to hope that his wife was dead; that he was a free man, free to marry Ethel Hurst; and here was this disagreeable solicitor trying to convince him that he had no foundation for such a hope. But the Palgraves were an obstinate race — impetuous, determined not to be moved aside from any pathway that promised to lead to glory or happiness.

“If my wife were alive, she would have seen that advertisement,” said Gervoise; “or she would have heard of it. Somebody or other would have pointed it out to her.”

Mr. Bagswell shrugged his shoulders.

“Who should guess that the advertisement related to Mrs. Gilbert?” he asked. “Agatha G.; mightn’t it be Agatha Green, Agatha Gregory, Agatha Grigson? People have enough to do to mind their own business, without running about telling each other of advertisements in the Times. If you want to find your wife, Mr. Gilbert,” added the lawyer rather significantly, “you needn’t despair just yet.”

“Then I’ll have the advertisement repeated for a fortnight longer. But I sha’n’t stop in London all that time. If Mrs. Gilbert comes here, you can let me know of her coming.”

“To be sure, if you give me your address.”

“I can’t do that,” answered Gervoise, “for I don’t exactly know where I may be during the next fortnight. If you hear anything of my wife, you can put an advertisement in the Times: ‘Agatha has been heard of.’ That will be enough. I’ll come up to town directly and see her. I am no hypocrite, Mr. Bagswell. I don’t want to find my wife because I love her, but because I left her in poverty; and as I am better off now than I ever hoped to be, I wish to come to an amicable arrangement with her. She shall have plenty of money, if that can make her happy. I only want a friendly understanding, and — a separation.”

 

Chapter 10
The Die Is Cast

Lord Haughton went back to Warwickshire, and shut himself up in his favourite rooms at Palgrave Chase. The oriel window of his sitting-room overhung the steep crag beneath which the stream rushed noisily downwards over smooth boulders and sharp craggy masses of granite, half hidden by wet moss and lichens.

In the deep oaken window-seat Gervoise sat for hours together, listening lazily to the rushing of the water, and waiting for news from Mr. Bagswell, the attorney. But the fortnight expired without tidings of the lost. The advertisement appealing to Agatha was inserted for the last time, and there was no sign from the attorney.

Upon the day after that on which the last advertisement appeared, Lord Haughton rode to Hyford Hall. He had made up his mind; whatever risk there might be, he had now resolved to incur the danger. He told himself that his wife was dead. His wicked hope that this might be so had grown day by day into a firm conviction that it was so. His advertisement, published so many times, had told of his improved fortunes. Would she, who had clung to him persistently in his poverty, be likely to hold herself aloof from his prosperity? This was the result of all his cogitations. But if he were deceived, and the risk were ever so great, he was resolved to incur it. At any hazard, he was determined to become the husband of Ethel Hurst. He never for a moment contemplated the possibility of a refusal. He knew that Ethel loved him; he had known it long ago, though no such confession had ever escaped from the girl’s innocent lips.

Lord Haughton went to the abbey. The servant who admitted him conducted him at once to the drawing-room. It was a dark misty day, early in February, and Ethel was sitting near the fire, with a favourite dog at her feet. The girl sat in a thoughtful attitude, with her elbow buried in the cushioned arm of her low chair. The firelight gleamed redly upon her bright hair, and lit up the folds of her violet-silk dress. An open book had fallen to her feet, and her sketching apparatus lay in disorder upon a little table near her.

“Miss Hurst! Ethel!” said Gervoise, advancing through the dusky room.

He had waited for the London papers of the day to reach him at the Chase before starting for the abbey. It was four o’clock in the afternoon now, and it was already nearly dark. But it was not too dark for the young Earl of Haughton to see the sudden radiance of joy that lit up Ethel’s face as she recognised him. The lover thought that one look more precious than Palgrave Chase and the earldom of Haughton — that one glorious smile, which melted away in a moment, and gave place to maidenly blushes.

That one smile was enough. Gervoise forgot all the story of the past. He forgot the bleak winter morning, the shivering parson in a dirty surplice, the low-born father-in-law with dingy hands and doubtful grammar, and the baby-faced girl so soon to be transformed into a tipsy virago. The Earl of Haughton forgot everything except Ethel Hurst and his love for her; and he asked her to be his wife.

Why should she say him nay? She loved him, and she knew that he loved her, for the vital spirit of truth breathed in every word he uttered. There could be no possible impediment to their union. Gervoise was her superior in rank — she was at least his equal in fortune. It is doubtful, though, whether Ethel Hurst thought of these things; whether she thought of anything, except that the man who was dearer to her than any other creature upon this earth had asked her to be his wife.

So Gervoise Palgrave was accepted. Early the next morning he called upon Sir Langley, and received a prompt acceptance of his proposal for Ethel’s hand. Lord Haughton begged that an early date might be chosen for the wedding, and the baronet assented willingly enough to the proposition.

 

Chapter 11
Before The Wedding

The 1st of March was appointed for the wedding. The bridal tour was arranged. The young couple were to make a brief progress through Switzerland and Italy, and were to return to Palgrave Chase in June. The marriage was to take place in the church nearest to Palgrave Chase, a pretty village church, with a dear old churchyard through which the Avon flowed, for ever murmuring softly past the resting-places of the quiet dead.

Everybody had expected that the wedding would have been a very grand ceremonial, and that half the country would have been invited to be present. But to the general surprise it was not so. Lord Haughton requested that the wedding should be strictly private. There was to be no grandeur, no train of carriages, no footmen in silk stockings, carrying gigantic bouquets, no fashionable bridesmaids, no glorification or extravagance whatever.

The twelvemonth of mourning for the late earl and countess had not yet expired. This was the reason which Gervoise alleged for preferring a quiet celebration of his marriage; but in very truth he was tormented by a vague dread of some catastrophe which might hinder the peaceful performance of that sacred service. The recollection of that other wedding weighed upon him like a dismal burden. It haunted him waking and sleeping. He was always dreaming of the wedding that had been, and the wedding that was to be, and confounding the two ceremonials one with the other in his dreams. Sometimes he was standing at the chilly altar in the city church, with Sir Langley Hurst giving him Agatha for his wife; sometimes he stood in the chancel of the church near the Chase, with the dirty landlord acting as father to Ethel Hurst.

He generally awoke from such dreams as these with his heart beating violently, and his face bathed in a cold sweat.

But the wedding-day drew near, nevertheless, and as that day came nearer and nearer, the burden grew heavier, until the Earl of Haughton’s resolution began to fail him, and he was almost ready to confess the truth.

He had not the courage to do this. He set out for Hyford Hall one day, with the intention of revealing that dismal secret; but half-way upon the road he turned his horse’s head, and went home again. He could not tell the woman he loved that he was a liar and a traitor. He could not steel himself to behold the white change that would creep over that lovely face, the wild look of anguish in the deep-blue eyes. No; he had sinned, and he was determined to hold to his sin.

“Let the consequence of my wrong-doing fall upon me, and not upon her,” he said.

Upon the last day of February the lovers rode out together side by side, with a couple of grooms behind them. They had often ridden gaily thus in the bitter wintry weather. The winter had been severe and long, and the fields were still covered with snow; the icicles glittered upon the leafless hedges; the frosty ground rang under the hoofs of the horses. Ethel was in very high spirits, for to-day Gervoise was gayer than he had ever been yet.

He had gone too far to recede. The wedding was irrevocable now, and he was glad that it was so. There was no longer time for hesitation or uncertainty; there was no longer chance of escape. The die was cast. In less than four-and-twenty hours Ethel Hurst would be his wife.

They cantered along the high road, laughing and talking. Ethel’s cheeks glowed with rosy brightness through her veil. The lovers rode under the low stone archway leading into Avondale. The High-street of the quaint old town was gayer than usual this afternoon, for it was market-day, and the business of the market was scarcely over. The inns near the market-place were crowded with customers, the ostlers were busy running from one horse to another with handfuls of hay and pails of water. At one corner of the narrow street the way was blocked by a couple of smart farmers’ chaise-carts, and a ponderous covered vehicle belonging to the Avondale carrier; and at this spot Lord Haughton and Ethel were compelled to pause for a few minutes, waiting until the carrier’s cart should move on.

In these few minutes the two equestrians became the object of the universal gaze. The Prince and Princess of Wales driving through a country town could not have attracted more attention than Lord Haughton and his plighted wife attracted in the High-street of Avondale.

Burly farmers doffed their hats to the young earl; applecheeked matrons dropped curtseys; the younger portion of the community stared in open-mouthed admiration. But they could only enjoy this pleasure for about three minutes. The carrier’s cart moved off, and the way was cleared. Lord Haughton shook the reins on his horse’s neck, and the animal was cantering off, when a woman broke through a crowd that had gathered in the doorway of an inn, rushed forward into the centre of the road, and caught at Gervoise Palgrave’s bridle.

She was a disreputable-looking woman, clad in rusty garments, that were little better than rags, with dishevelled hair hanging loosely about her face, and a battered bonnet that had fallen half off her head.

“You villain!” she cried, clinging desperately to the bridle; “you false, heartless scoundrel! how dared you desert your—”

She could say no more. The earl’s horse reared and struck out with his fore-legs in the air. The woman fell upon the frosty roadway. Gervoise reined-in his horse; the woman was picked up senseless; but the crowd hastened to assure Lord Haughton that no harm had been done.

“I don’t think the horse kicked her, my lord,” one of the lookers-on said; “she was frightened, and fell. She was only stunned. It’s her own fault, for flying at your lordship like that. She must be mad, or drunk, I should think.”

“Yes, I should fancy so,” the earl answered coolly. “See that the poor creature wants for nothing,” he said to the landlord of the little inn, who was standing on the kerb-stone; “I will pay all expenses. — Come, Ethel.”

The riders cantered away as the woman was being carried in at the low doorway of the inn. Ethel Hurst was very pale, and she did not speak till she and her lover had left the town of Avondale behind them, and had slackened their pace upon the road beyond the castle.

“O Gervoise,” she said at last, “how frightened I was when that woman stopped you! Why did she attack you like that?”

Lord Haughton laughed as he answered this question.

“My darling Ethel,” he said, “I might just as well make the same inquiry of you. The woman is mad, or drunk, I suppose, as that man said just now. She could have no other reason for acting as she did.”

 

Chapter 12
Gervoise Palgrave’s Curse

Lord Haughton was to have dined at Hyford Hall upon the eve of his wedding-day; but after his ride with Ethel he excused himself upon the ground of unexpected and important business, which would keep him a prisoner for that evening. The settlements had been duly arranged already, all necessary deeds executed, and his engagement for that evening had been an informal one.

He rode home to Palgrave Chase after leaving Ethel at the hall; he rode slowly homeward through the chill winter twilight, thinking of what he was to do.

He was to become the husband of Ethel Hurst at eleven o’clock upon the following morning; and the woman who had snatched at his horse’s bridle in the Avondale High-street was his wife.

This was the problem that Lord Haughton set himself to solve; and he did not find it by any means an easy one. It was more especially difficult, inasmuch as he had not more than eighteen hours in which to accomplish its solution.

“She shall not balk me,” he thought to himself; “come what may, I will stand at the altar to-morrow with Ethel Hurst.”

He pondered over the circumstances of that fatal marriage in the city church. What evidence was there to prove it? The testimony of the clergyman who performed the ceremony, the witnesses who were present during that performance, the record in the parish register, and the certificate.

Lord Haughton knew that his wife had taken possession of the certificate shortly after the marriage. Agatha’s father had been a witness of the ceremony. And there had been other witnesses — the clerk and the registrar. Above all, there was that indestructible testimony in the parish register.

How, then, was this hateful secret to be stifled? It could only be stifled by the consent of Agatha herself. There was no other way.

“She shall go to Australia,” thought he; “I will load her with benefits if she will go away and release me from the ties of the past.”

Lord Haughton dined alone in the room overlooking the waterfall. After dinner he sent for Humphrey Melwood.

Margery and her son had been considerably benefited by the new master of Palgrave Chase. They lived a very easy life in the comfortably-furnished lodge, and Humphrey had plenty of money, with full license to work or to be idle, just as it pleased his humour. He was a great deal with his foster-brother; hunting and shooting with him; attending upon him, whenever it pleased the earl to allow such attendance.

Humphrey went into the pretty lighted chamber to-night while Gervoise was lounging over his wine.

“Come in, Humphrey, and shut the door behind you,” said the earl, looking up. “You may as well sit down and help yourself to a glass of that Burgundy, for I want to have a good long talk with you. You’ve often talked of serving me, Humphrey; and I know you’ve always meant what you’ve said. I think the time has come in which I want your service, as sorely as ever an unlucky wretch needed the help of a faithful friend.”

“Then you shall have it, Master Gervoise; you shall have it, my lord,” cried the gamekeeper. “If it’s my heart’s blood you’re going to ask of me, you shall have it as freely as if it was so much water.”

“I don’t want quite as much as that,” answered Gervoise; “I only want your help in a matter that must be kept a secret. I know you’ve plenty of the dare-devil in you, but that isn’t exactly what’s wanted in this case. I want prudence and secrecy. Can I depend upon you?”

“You can.”

Lord Haughton was silent for some minutes. He sat with his chin resting upon his hand, thinking. There are some things that are very bitter to recall — very humiliating to the man who has to confess them.

“I suppose it’s almost every man’s lot to be a fool at some time or other in his life,” Gervoise said at last. “I had my fling of folly about five years ago, and I paid dearly enough for it. When my father died he left me without a sixpence that I could call my own, and with an education that adapted me for everything except a hand-to-hand struggle with the world. I had a taste for art. I could paint; and my father’s fashionable friends, lounging in his drawing-room after one of his snug little bachelor dinners, had criticised my boyish sketches, and prophesied great things about me. When I found myself quite alone in the world, I went to those amiable friends of my dead father’s and solicited their helping hands. I didn’t ask for money, Humphrey; I only asked for introductions — patronage. I might as well have asked such help of the dreary stone pavement over which I tramped backwards and forwards, seeking for employment. But I was very young, very ignorant; and the world had not conquered me yet. I took a lodging in a respectable tradesman’s house, and set to work painting for bread. For a time I contrived to live. My ambition was not blighted — I hoped in a fair future, and worked conscientiously, happily. But work as I would, I could not keep myself out of debt. I owed money to my landlord. His daughter was a pretty, innocent, baby-faced girl. She fell in love with me, or fancied that she had fallen in love with me. Her father hinted as much to me: I must either pay the money I owed him and go; or I must marry the girl whose peace of mind was endangered by my presence in that house. This, or something to this effect, was what the father said. You will despise me, I daresay, Humphrey; but you have never fallen so low as I have. You have never known the fear of starvation. I married my landlord’s daughter — and I was miserable with her.”

Gervoise Palgrave stopped, and covered his face with his hands. Humphrey looked at him wonderingly.

“But you’re free of all that now, Master Gervoise,” said the gamekeeper; “your wife’s dead, and—”

“No,” answered Gervoise, without removing his hands from before his face, “she is not dead.”

“Not dead!”

Humphrey Melwood sat motionless, with an empty glass in his hand, staring at his foster-brother.

“Not dead, Master Gervoise! And you a-goin’ to — marry — Miss Ethel Hurst?”

“Yes, Humphrey,” returned Lord Haughton fiercely; “and I will marry Ethel Hurst, come what may!”

“But, Master Gervoise, how can you marry her if — the other one, you know? It’s against the law, isn’t it?”

“What’s against the law?”

“Two of ’em.”

“Now listen to me, Humphrey,” said Lord Haughton. “I told you just now that I wanted your help. I want you to help me to — get rid of this woman.”

The red colour died out of Humphrey Melwood’s sunburnt face.

“Master Gervoise — you don’t — mean—”

“I mean no possible injury against this wretched creature. Any reunion between us is impossible. All I want is freedom — freedom to marry the girl I love. This woman must be got out of the way. I want you to take her to Birmingham by the first train to-morrow morning — from Birmingham you can get off to Liverpool. There you can put your charge on board the first vessel that sails for Australia. I have been looking at the papers; the Cydnus leaves Liverpool upon the 10th of next month. Will you do this business for me, Humphrey? You have talked a good deal of sentimental nonsense about giving me your life, and so forth: will you take my wife to Liverpool, and keep close guard over her till the Australian-bound vessel sails out of the Mersey?”

“I’ll do it, Master Gervoise,” answered Humphrey; “there’s little I’d refuse to do for you. And it isn’t much to get this woman out of the way. But suppose she refuses to consent to this plan?”

“She must consent to it,” replied Gervoise. “I may be compelled to deceive her, perhaps; and may have to promise to join her by and by in Australia. She is a desperate woman when her blood is up. But I used to have a good deal of influence over her. I may be able to manage her now.”

“But where is she, Master Gervoise?”

“At Avondale, at the King’s Head. I want you to go off at once, Humphrey; see her, tell her that Gervoise Gilbert wants to see her, and bring her back here with you. Don’t tell her anything but that. She knows nothing of my present rank; and she must remain ignorant. You can go and return by the little door in the passage at the end of these rooms. I’ll let you in when you come back. I don’t want anybody to see this woman, or to know that she has been here.”

There was some further conversation between the two men; and then Lord Haughton led his foster-brother along a narrow passage to a half-glass door, opening into a flower-garden, where shrubs and evergreens grew upon the margin of the broad stream. The roar of the waterfall was loud in the stillness of the winter night. Neither moon nor stars were visible in the black sky.

“What a dark night!” said the earl, in a whisper. “You’ll go to Avondale by the high-road, Humphrey; you won’t attempt to go by the side of the river?”

“Why not, my lord?”

“Because of the danger. You might miss your footing in the dark.”

“Not I. The footpath by the river’s half a mile nearer than the high-road. There’s no fear of my missing my way. I’ll be back in an hour.”

The young man walked lightly across the little grassy lawn. There were some steps cut in the perpendicular bank of the river — a rustic staircase, guarded by a light iron balustrade. The steps were very steep, and led down to the margin of the waterfall. Humphrey Melwood descended the rustic staircase, and groped his way along the narrow pathway. Lord Haughton went slowly back to his own rooms. A study, lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, opened out of the room in which he had dined. He took the lamp in his hand and went into this room, which was his chosen retreat. He sat down by the fireplace, and took a book from the shelf nearest his hand; but although he opened the volume and turned over the leaves, he made no attempt to read. He could only sit there, waiting, and listening to the roar of the waterfall below the deep bank, and the moaning of the wind in the wide chimney.

It was a little after ten o’clock. At eleven he might expect Humphrey and — the woman. What if, when she came, she should be violent and desperate! What if she should refuse to assent to his smooth proposals! What if she should hold him to his marriage vow, and come between him and Ethel Hurst!

He walked up and down the room, thinking of what he should do if his wife refused to go to Australia. What other expedient was there — what other?

Gervoise Palgrave paced backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, only stopping now and then to look at the clock upon the chimneypiece, until it was ten minutes past eleven, and he heard a light tap upon the glass-door in the passage outside his room. Then he went to the door, opened it, and admitted two people — Humphrey Melwood and Agatha Palgrave.

The unhappy creature’s head had been hurt by her fall under the horse’s hoofs, and her forehead was bound by a linen rag, that was flecked with blood. This, and the pallor of her haggard face, gave an awful ghastliness to her appearance. She looked about her with a wondering stare as she came into the room, and then turned fiercely upon Lord Haughton.

“So this has been your home while I have been begging in the streets of London,” she said, with an angry sneer. “I wish you joy of your fine house, Gervoise, and of the kind heart that could make you turn your back upon a miserable woman.”

“Your own friends would have sheltered you, Agatha; you might have gone back to them.”

“What! to tell them that my husband had deserted me?” cried the woman. “No, Gervoise, I had too much pride for that.”

Gervoise Palgrave’s wife was not quite sober yet. She had been half mad with drink when she had rushed out of the doorway of the inn to throw herself in her husband’s pathway; but her fall had sobered her a little. She was unnaturally calm, and there was an angry light in her dark eyes.

Humphrey Melwood, standing upon the threshold of the door, watched his foster-brother’s wife with an anxious face. He began to think that it would be no very easy matter to get this pale, resolute-looking woman on board an Australia-bound vessel, unless she should consent willingly to such an arrangement.

“And that she’ll never do,” Humphrey Melwood thought to himself. “She’s one of those women that’ll hold on like death to anything they’ve set their hearts on. Master Gervoise will have to give up his new wife, for he won’t get rid of this one in a hurry.”

As for the right or wrong of the business, the gamekeeper did not give himself any trouble about that. He was a kind of rustic savage, and had all the untutored notions of a savage. To be faithful to those he loved, and to revenge himself upon those he hated, comprised his entire creed of morality. He could neither read nor write, and had never been to church since his early boyhood, when he had been conducted thither by a village schoolmaster, who rapped the heads of his pupils with a cane at intervals throughout the service, to keep their minds from wandering.

“You can stop in the next room for a short time, Humphrey,” Gervoise said presently; “I must speak to my wife alone.”

 

Chapter 13
The Sound Of The Waterfall

The gamekeeper closed the door between the two rooms, leaving Gervoise and Agatha alone in the little study. Humphrey sat down near the fireplace. There was no light except the red glimmer of the low fire. The table was still littered with the débris of the dessert. He drew one of the decanters towards him, and filled his glass. He was restrained by no code of honour or politeness; and he listened to the voices in the next room, wondering whether his foster-brother would be able to conquer the pale-faced, obstinate-looking woman who claimed him for her husband.

At first the voices were very low; then they ceased altogether, and the gamekeeper only heard the woman’s faint, moaning sobs, and Gervoise Palgrave’s footsteps as he paced up and down the room. But after this the voices grew louder. Humphrey heard his foster-brother’s tones raised in passionate denunciation; the woman’s voice rose almost to a shriek; and then again there was a sudden lull.

It was a long interview. Humphrey Melwood, looking at the clock every now and then, kept close count of the time. It was tiresome work sitting by the low fire waiting and doing nothing, while these two passionate creatures upbraided each other in the next room. The gamekeeper found the time hang very heavily upon his hands; and the only entertainment he could find for himself was an occasional recourse to the decanters upon the table before him. He drank a good deal in this manner; and when the interview between the husband and wife had lasted a little more than an hour, Humphrey Melwood fell into a doze, with his arms lying upon the table, and his fingers still resting upon the stem of his half-filled glass.

He was awakened suddenly by the opening of the door and the hasty entrance of Lord Haughton, with the lamp in his hand. The young man closed the door behind him, placed the lamp upon the table, and then walked to the low mantelpiece. He stood there with his elbows resting upon the marble, and his face covered with his hands.

“I cannot bear it,” he said; “it is too cruel — it is too bitter a burden. I shall blow out my brains! I shall do something to put an end to all this.”

Humphrey Melwood rose, and went close to his foster-brother.

“Won’t she go, Master Gervoise?” he asked.

“No, she won’t go; she won’t consent to anything except to fasten herself upon me for ever and ever. She will compel me to be false to every vow that I have made to the woman I love. O Humphrey, if you knew how we love each other, Ethel and I! I am not a fool or a coxcomb; but I know that my poor girl’s heart will break if she ever has to learn the truth. We love each other so dearly; we love each other—” Gervoise broke down, and burst into a passion of tears. Humphrey Melwood, half-stupefied with the wine he had been drinking, stared hopelessly at his foster-brother.

“Don’t, Master Gervoise,” he cried, “don’t, now; don’t, for pity’s sake! You’ll make me mad like, if you do that. It hurts me to hear you; it hurts me. I feel — I feel almost as if I could—”

The gamekeeper stopped, with his teeth set and his clenched hand suddenly lifted, as if he would have struck down some invisible foe; but his arm dropped slowly by his side, and he gave a long sigh. The fumes of the wine had mounted to his brain by this time, and all the latent fierceness of his halfsavage character had been aroused by the strong drink and the sight of his master’s grief.

“I can’t bear it, Master Gervoise,” he said; “I can’t bear it. I give you fair warning that I shall do something desperate if you go on like that. It makes me mad, Master Gervoise — it makes me mad.”

“I can’t help it, Humphrey,” answered Lord Haughton, turning from the mantelpiece, and dropping into an arm-chair by the fire; “I can’t help it. I know I must seem a fool and a coward; but it’s no use fighting against it. They showed me Ethel in her wedding-dress last night, Humphrey. I can see her blushing face now as she stood before me, half-hidden under her pure white veil. My beautiful, innocent darling, are you to be sacrificed because I have been a villain? I love her so dearly, Humphrey, with the truest, tenderest, purest love that man ever felt for woman; and am I to give her up, and break the noblest heart that ever beat in woman’s breast, because that creature in there trades upon the mistake of my youth — the one mad folly of my wretched youth?”

He sat staring at the dying embers in the low grate. Humphrey watched the young man’s gloomy face with a strange expression in his fierce black eyes.

“But won’t she go, Master Gervoise?” the gamekeeper said presently; “that woman in there, can’t you get her to go away, and let you alone? You are rich, and can afford to give her plenty of money. Won’t that keep her quiet?”

No, Humphrey; nothing will satisfy her — nothing but my ruin. It’s that she wants; that, and nothing else. I begged her to go to Australia, America — anywhere. I told her a lie, for I said that I would join her there by and by; but the she-devil only laughed in my face, with a horrible, half-drunken laugh. She’ll stick to me, she says. Until this hour I have believed that it was she who took my son away upon the night of the races; but she declares that she has never been in this part of the country until to-day, and that she has never seen the child since I took him away from London. Her manner seems like truth, and the boy’s disappearance remains a mystery. She has been tramping all over the country, searching for me in almost every town in England. She only came into Avondale by chance this afternoon, about a quarter of an hour before she saw me in the market-place. She knows nothing. I have told her that this house belongs to a nobleman, and that I am only a dependent here. If she knew the truth, there’d be no getting her away from the place. As it is, I’m bewildered how to act. O Humphrey, when my wedding-day drew near, and I heard no news of that woman, I thought that she was dead. I did think that, so help me Heaven, or I would not have gone on; I would have drawn back at the last, and told my dear girl the truth. But now — what am I to do? — what am I to do?”

The gamekeeper did not answer directly. He had kept his eyes fixed upon the low red light in the fireplace while his foster-brother had been talking, as if more absorbed by his own thoughts than by Lord Haughton’s passionate words. Now he lifted his eyes and looked full in the earl’s face.

“Are you bent upon keeping your word to Miss Hurst, Master Gervoise?” he asked.

“Am I bent on keeping my word to her?” cried Gervoise. “I tell you, Humphrey, I love her better than my life; she is all the world to me.”

“And if this woman in yonder could be only got out of the way, you’d risk all the rest?”

“There would be nothing to fear if she were out of the way. I would risk everything except the chance of her following me to the altar and proclaiming the tie that binds us. I would risk everything but that.”

“You would, Master Gervoise?”

“I would,”

“But you think it’s no good persuading her to emigrate somewhere far away?”

“No good; I’ve tried hard enough to induce her to that. I’ve tried to persuade her, and I’ve tried to bribe her, but she only laughed at me.”

“She’s quiet now,” muttered Humphrey, pointing to the door.

“Yes; she has exhausted herself with her own violence; but she won’t be quiet long. She’ll break in upon us presently, I daresay. What am I to do, Humphrey? We must arrange some plan — we must do something; or else—”

“Or else what, Master Gervoise?”

“I must go to Ethel to-morrow morning and tell her all the miserable truth.”

“That would be hard for you to have to do, Master Gervoise?”

“Hard for me!” cried Gervoise; “it would be death to me! I tell you, Humphrey, unless I can keep my faith to Ethel at mid-day to-morrow, I will shoot myself before midnight!”

Humphrey Melwood got up and walked to and fro, with his hands in his pockets, looking at the floor.

The gamekeeper was a fine, handsome fellow, of the semi-savage type, with a muscular frame and sunburnt face, and broad, brawny hands. There was gipsy blood in his veins, and he had the glittering gipsy eyes, the blue-black hair, the flashing white teeth, and the roving, restless nature. He had the gipsy cunning, and the gipsy love of fine dress and gay colours. To-night he wore a velveteen shooting-jacket, with great shining mother-of-pearl buttons, and he had a rainbow-hued woollen comforter twisted round his strong, full throat. He walked up and down the room for two or three minutes, as if arguing some question in his mind. Then he stopped suddenly by the window.

“It’s no use, Master Gervoise,” said the gamekeeper. “I’m a poor ignorant fellow; I can’t think of anything to help you, except—”

He dropped his voice, and did not attempt to finish the sentence. The hoarse roar of the rushing waters under the bank seemed to distract his attention; for his black eyes kept wandering restlessly towards the window, as if their glance unconsciously followed the direction of the sound to which he listened.

“Do you think you can get her away quietly for to-night, Master Grervoise?”

“Only by going with her.”

“But you can’t do that. You’ve told her that you’re only a dependent in this house, and that the nobleman this place belongs to is a sort of master over you, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I told her that.”

“Very well then, you can easy tell her that you must get your master’s leave before you go away from the house. Tell her, if she’ll go away back to Avondale with me — quietly — you’ll join her at the King’s Head early to-morrow morning, and go back to London with her. You could tell her that, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, I might tell her that, and persuade her to go away with you to-night; but—”

“But what?”

“When to-morrow morning comes, what then? Am I to keep my promise? Am I to tell Ethel—”

“Never mind about to-morrow morning, Master Grervoise. There’s a long time between this and the hour for your wedding. Something may happen — to — take this woman — out of your way — between this and then.”

The gamekeeper spoke in a voice little louder than a whisper, and he kept his eyes fixed upon the ground all the time. Gervoise started up out of his chair, and looked at Humphrey Melwood with a strange expression — an expression in which a wild and sudden horror was mingled with a wild and sudden joy.

“What do you mean?” he cried, in a half-broken voice. “You don’t mean — you don’t mean that—”

He stopped, and stood still, with that strange look fixed upon his face.

The gamekeeper never raised his eyes from the ground. He pointed to the closed door without looking up —

“Has she got any papers about her — her marriage-certificate—”

“No, she tells me she has lost it.”

“Lost it?”

“Yes; but that won’t help me. She knows the name of the church where she was married. The parish register will tell everything.”

“Ah, I forgot that. But she has no certificate about her—”

“No.”

“No letters, or anything of that kind?”

“No. She has been tramping here and there about the country. It isn’t likely she’d have any letters about her. No one has cared to write to her lately, poor wretch.”

There was another silent pause; and still the dismal roar of the waterfall below the bank sounded hoarsely in the solemn stillness of the winter night.

The two men stood opposite to each other upon the broad hearthrug; the gamekeeper always looking downwards, Gervoise with his eyes fixed upon his foster-brother’s face. The hands of the little clock upon the mantelpiece pointed to ten minutes before one.

“Go and see if you can get her to go away quietly with me, Master Gervoise,” Humphrey Melwood said presently.

“But what are you going to do with her?” Gervoise asked, in a hesitating, constrained manner. “How will you get her away, so that there may be no interruption of the wedding to-morrow? How do you mean to get her away from this part of the country without her finding out who I am?”

“Never you mind that, Master Gervoise! You’ve asked me to serve you, and I’m ready to do it. What I said about shedding every drop of my blood for you, if you wanted it, wasn’t quite such foolish sentimental talk as it seemed, perhaps. I’d do it, Master Gervoise — I’d do it!” cried the gamekeeper, with his eyes flaming. “You say that you’d go and kill yourself if you had to break your faith with that young lady at Hyford Hall. You sha’n’t break your faith. Get this woman to go away quietly with me. That’s all I want. Get her to go away quietly. You’re sure that nothing will persuade her to go to America or Australia?”

“I’m quite sure.”

“You’ve tried everything?”

“Yes, I’ve tried everything.”

“Very well; then get her to go away with me — quietly.” Lord Haughton made no answer. He stood for a moment thinking; then he went into the next room.

Humphrey Melwood went to the oriel window, opened it, and looked out upon the shadowy lawn.

The moon, which rose late, was rising now, and there was a faint silvery glimmer in the wintry sky.

Humphrey Melwood could see the outline of the trees in the park upon the other side of the river, black against the sky, and the rippling waters of the cascade glimmering here and there in the dim light. The air was bitter cold, and the wind was moaning upon the river, with a slow, dismal sound that was like the wail of a human voice.

Gervoise found his wife sitting where he had left her, asleep. Her bonnet had slipped off, and her head had dropped upon the cushioned arm of her chair, with all the loose dishevelled hair falling about her haggard forehead.

If anything could have moved Lord Haughton’s heart to pity this woman, it might have been the sight of that wan, white face, lying helplessly upon the velvet cushion. It had been a pretty face once, and he had loved its fresh young prettiness after his own fashion. But he had no pity for this woman now; he looked upon her only as an impediment to the gratification of his newest wish. He had no more merciful feeling towards this miserable woman, who had been his wife, than he would have had for any inanimate obstacle that divided him from the new object of his selfish passion.

He had no pity in his heart. He had only a vague fear — a horrible dread. He felt as if he had been standing upon the verge of a dismal abyss, whose depth he could not fathom.

“Agatha,” he said.

The woman started and looked up at him, half asleep, half awake.

“Do you know how late it is? You can’t stay here any longer. It’s past one o’clock.”

Agatha Palgrave rubbed her eyes with her thin hands, and sat blinking at her husband for some moments before she seemed to understand him.

“You must go away, Agatha. The inn at Avondale will be shut up for the night. If you stay here any later you mayn’t be able to get in.”

“You’ll go away with me?”

“Yes — at least, I’ll come to you early to-morrow morning. I can’t leave without seeing the master of this house.”

“Gervoise, you are trying to deceive me,” cried the woman, starting up, and grasping at her husband’s wrist; “you are trying to deceive me. I know it by your face; you are as white as death.”

“I’m tired to death,” answered Gervoise; you may believe me, or not, as you please, Agatha; but I tell you you must leave this house to-night.”

There was a firmness in his tone that seemed like truth. The wretched woman was tired out. Her miserable wanderings hither and thither had enfeebled her constitution,. already impaired by intemperance. She was quite worn out now, and submitted to her husband’s will from sheer want of strength.

“You will promise to come to me the first thing to-morrow morning?” she said.

“Yes, yes.”

“At daybreak?”

At daybreak.”

Very well. Remember, if I don’t see you then, I shall come back here after you. I’m not to be put off easily, remember, Gervoise. I’ve suffered enough to make me desperate. How am I to get back to Avondale without you? I don’t know the way.”

“The person who brought you here will take you back again.”

“Who is that man?”

“One of the servants belonging to this place.”

He’s a strange kind of person. I asked him ever so many questions as we came along about you, and how it was you were living here; but he wouldn’t answer one of them.”

“He was very wise. Come, Agatha.”

The woman gave a weary sigh, and then drew her ragged shawl round her.

“Since you’re so rich, you may as well give me something to buy decent clothes with,” she said sneeringly; “I want them badly enough.”

“I’ll give you anything — everything — to-morrow. Come.” He went into the next room, slowly followed by his wife. Humphrey was standing near an open window waiting for his foster-brother.

“My wife will go back to Avondale with you, Humphrey,” Lord Haughton said.

He led the way out into the little passage, and opened the half-glass door. Agatha went out first, and stood upon the lawn waiting for Humphrey.

“You will want money,” whispered Gervoise in the gamekeeper’s ear; “here is my purse. I will send you more tomorrow.”

He pushed the purse into Humphrey Melwood’s hand, but the young man rejected it.

“I don’t want your money,” he answered, in an angry whisper; “and you know that I don’t.”

He waited for no remonstrance, but stepped out upon the lawn, and taking the woman by the wrist, told her to keep close to him.

“Are we going back the same way we came?” she asked.

“Yes.”

I don’t like that way — it’s dangerous.”

I’ll take care of you. Come.”

The young man led Agatha Palgrave to the rustic steps in the cliff. Step by step they descended — he first, she behind him — very slowly. The moaning wind that swept along the stream blew coldly in their faces. The frost was beginning to break, and a drizzling rain was falling. Lord Haughton stood in the narrow doorway while those two went down to the path by the river. He could hear their voices as they descended the steep rustic stairs — the woman’s feeble little cries of terror, the man’s gruff answers to those piteous exclamations. Then he heard nothing more except the perpetual sound of the waterfall, roaring with a dismal monotony in the stillness of the night.

The Earl of Haughton went back to the room where he had dined. He sat down by the hearth and replenished the fire, then he went over to the open window and seated himself in the deep oaken window-seat. He sat there with his folded arms resting upon the broad sill, and looked out into the garden, dimly visible in the faint wintry moonlight. He was heedless of the cold wet wind that blew upon his face; he was indifferent to the lateness of the night.

A quarter of an hour after Humphrey and Agatha descended the steps in the cliff a distant sound mingled itself with the mournful moaning of the wind. This time it was not the wind only that sounded in the stillness. This time there was, indeed, the long, dismal wail of a human voice.

But the mournful sound died away, and melted into the swelling murmur of the wind, drowned in the perpetual noise of the rushing water under the shadow of the steep bank. Then the master of Palgrave Chase shut the window, took the lamp from the table, and went through the firelit study into his spacious bedchamber.

He set the lamp down upon the dressing-table, and by chance saw his face in the glass. Of all the Palgraves who had been tenants of that chamber, not one among them had ever seen a ghastlier reflection of himself than the white haggard image which looked at Gervoise Palgrave to-night.

He turned away from the table with a groan, and flung himself, dressed as he was, upon the bed, to take what rest he might before the late winter morning. This was how the Earl of Haughton passed the eve of his bridal.

And through the rest of that long night, mingling with his dreams, and suddenly awakening him every now and then with a choking agony in his dry throat, and a cold sweat upon his face, the long, despairing cry of a human voice was blended with the hoarse roar of the waterfall.

 

Chapter 14
An Uninvited Guest

Dull, dark, and drizzling was the morning which was to elevate Ethel Hurst to the peerage, an elevation that was very distasteful to numerous matchmaking mothers within a visiting distance of Palgrave Chase, who had hoped to see the young earl subjugated by the charms and accomplishments of one of their daughters, and who thought his preference a kind of insult to those fair young damsels.

Sir Langley’s six daughters were to officiate as their cousin’s bridesmaids, and to these young ladies the cold wet morning caused much disgust. They shivered in their diaphanous draperies of virginal white; and the broad scarlet sashes, which gave warmth and colour to their costume, were scarcely redder than the tips of their pretty noses. They bore their martyrdom with tolerable patience, however, satisfied with the knowledge that this day was to give them a countess for their cousin; a countess who might get them invited to court balls and concerts, and who would introduce them to the creme de la creme at her brilliant establishment in Park-lane or Grosvenor-square, for of course Lord Haughton would secure a town house immediately on his return from the honeymoon trip.

To Ethel the cold wet morning seemed of little importance, though the maid who dressed her in her bridal robes loudly lamented the ill augury. What could it matter whether she went through sunlight or darkness to give her hand to Gervoise Palgrave? She loved her chosen husband so dearly that she needed no omen of sunshine to assure her of future happiness. What sorrow could assail them so long as Heaven permitted them to dwell together? What but death could part them, by so much as a thought?

The wedding was to take place at Pendon Church, where Stephen Hurst and the Vicar of Avondale were to officiate. It seemed a hard and bitter thing for Stephen to utter the words which were to bind his cousin Ethel to his rival, but he consented to officiate in compliance with the loudly-expressed wishes of his family, and Ethel’s gentle appeal.

“You have promised to be all that a brother could be to me, Stephen,” she said timidly; “I shall think you are something less than my brother, or that you do not approve of my marriage, if you refuse to perform the ceremony.”

On this he consented.

“If ever you need a brother’s devotion, or a brother’s counsel, you shall not find me slow to perform my promise,” he said, with a gentle pressure of his cousin’s hand.

When the carriages reached the little gate of Pendon churchyard, Lord Haughton came out of the porch and along the narrow pathway leading to the gate.

The drizzling rain came down upon him, though he was an earl, and though he came bareheaded to receive his bride; somewhat to the surprise of the gaping villagers, who were inclined to wonder that the very elements themselves did not respect the lord of Palgrave Chase.

Ethel Hurst went up the narrow pathway by her uncle’s side, with Gervoise walking on her left hand, and the crowd had enough to do to stare at bride and bridegroom.

The Earl of Haughton’s pale, dark face might have been a study for a painter in its perfection of masculine beauty. But the darkest tints upon the artist’s palette would have been needed for his work, and the picture would have been rather a gloomy one.

Gervoise Palgrave did not at all satisfy the rustic and popular idea of a happy bridegroom. If this were the happiest day of his life, he had a strange manner of wearing his happiness.

Everyone had expected to see the young earl’s countenance radiant with the sunshine of triumphant smiles, the brightness whereof should have atoned in some wise for the want of light in the heavens.

But it was not so. The earl had been standing in the church-porch, waiting for his bride, for upwards of a quarter of an hour, and though the rural populace had kept close watch upon him all that time, not one amongst them had seen Gervoise Palgrave smile.

It was natural to him to be pale, but to-day he was paler than usual. His eyes were bloodshot, and his face had a haggard look, like that of a man who has been deprived of his customary rest.

As he came up the soddened pathway now, he was not looking at his bride’s fair face, though he was walking by her side. His eyes turned uneasily from right to left, from left to right again, as if looking for someone or something in the crowd; as if looking for something or someone that he half expected and greatly feared to meet.

The churchyard was densely crowded in the neighbourhood of the pathway along which the bride and bridegroom walked. In spite of the miserable weather, in defiance of Lord Haughton’s desire that the wedding should be a quiet one, people had come from a very long distance in order to see the young heiress of Hyford Hall married to the master of Palgrave Chase.

As Gervoise and his two companions drew near the porch, the crowd about the gate opening from the meadows was suddenly pushed open, and something was brought into the churchyard.

The crowd parted and fell away from it. Until this moment there had been a buzzing noise of murmured remarks amongst the eager spectators, everyone of whom had found something or other to say about the bride. But all at once there was an awful silence. Every eye was turned away from the bride and bridegroom; every eye was directed towards that SOMETHING which had been brought into the churchyard.

It was a burden carried by two labourers upon a roughly-fashioned litter, made of a couple of planks hastily tied together. The burden was partially covered by a large freize coat that had been stripped from one of the bearers. It was covered, but it was not hidden.

Everybody present knew that the burden carried by those two men was a corpse.

The men went slowly through the churchyard with their burden. They had a vague idea that their presence there was somehow out of keeping with the great event of the day. But that was no fault of theirs. They had a certain business to do, and they were bound to do it, though a royal princess had been about to be married that day in Pendon Church.

Their business was to carry the body of a woman, lately found floating in the Avon, a couple of miles off, to the principal inn at Pendon, there to await the coroner and his jury; and their nearest way to the inn lay through the churchyard. This was the men’s business, and they did it without reference to Miss Ethel Hurst or the Earl of Haughton.

Ethel uttered a shriek as the ghastly burden was carried slowly past her.

“What is it, Gervoise?” she cried. “O, what is it? — who is it? Is it somebody who has been hurt? — somebody who is—”

She clasped her lover by the arm, and looked up imploringly in his face, but he made no answer to her eager questions. He stood looking at the motionless figure on the litter, with every feature in his face as rigid as if flesh and blood had been suddenly transformed to iron.

“Who is it? Is the person ill, or is — is — she dead?” cried Ethel. “O, go and see, Gervoise; go and ask them what has happened?”

The two men had reached the gate opening into the highroad by this time, and the crowd had gathered round them and their dismal burden. Everybody was anxious to see the dead woman’s face, more eager even than they had been to see the bride herself in all the glory of her wedding dress. Everybody was eager to know who and what the dead woman was. Was it a stranger? Was it anyone from Pendon?

Gervoise obeyed his bride’s behest. He walked slowly to the gate, still bareheaded. The crowd made way for him as he approached, and he went straight up to one of the two labourers, and touched him upon the shoulder.

“Who is it?” Lord Haughton asked, pointing to the figure upon the litter.

The corpse was a woman; there was no doubt of that. The water dripped slowly from the folds of her shabby gown, and her feet — not large or coarse in shape, but, O, how miserably clad — were visible below the tattered edge of her skirt.

“Who is it?” asked the Earl of Haughton.

“It’s a pore woman, my lord, as was found floatin’ on the river out yonder, by me and my mate, betwixt here and Avondale, little better nor two hour ago. She’s drownded herself, pore sould, I suppose. She’s been one o’ them ‘fellers-de-see,’ I’m afeard, your honour; but I dessay as the pore thing’s young and reyther good-lookin’, the coroner’ll bring it in ‘trumperary insanity.’ Perhaps you’d like to see the pore creetur’s face, my lord?”

The crowd surged forward as the labourer’s rough hand moved towards the drapery that covered the face of the dead, and there was a breathless pause of expectation.

But the man waited to receive the word of command from Gervoise Palgrave himself.

“Would your lordship like to see the pore thing’s face?” he asked again.

“Yes,” answered the Earl of Haughton, drawing a long breath before he spoke.

The man lifted the coat from off the litter.

The dead woman’s face was terrible to look upon; for there was all the horror of sudden death in the fixed features, and the widely-opened eyes, with their blank, sightless stare.

But Gervoise Palgrave had no need to look long at that rigid face. He knew it too well — he knew it only too well! He went back, very slowly this time, to the church-porch, where Ethel was waiting for him.

“Who is it, Gervoise?” she cried; “is the person dead?”

“Yes, Ethel.”

“Dead! O, poor creature! But who is she, Gervoise?”

“How should I know, my dear?”

“She is a stranger here, then?”

“Yes, quite a stranger here.”

“And she is drowned?”

“Yes.”

“She threw herself into the river, I suppose, poor unhappy creature?”

“I suppose so, Ethel. The men who found her say as much. But, my dear love, you must not be unhappy about this.”

“How can I help feeling unhappy?” cried she. “We can only be happy while we forget that there is such misery in the world. And you look unhappy, Gervoise, as well as I.”

“Do I, Ethel?” asked the young man. “Well, certainly, dearest, such an event as this is scarcely very agreeable upon one’s wedding-day.”

The beadle in attendance in the background murmured something to the effect that such occurrences must be expected in a country where Tories were in the minority.

But Stephen Hurst and the Vicar of Avondale were waiting in the vestry, whither Gervoise Palgrave conducted his bride; and by and by the bridal procession went slowly up the aisle, and the wedding-party ranged themselves about the altar-rails.

The solemn service was read. There was no interruption — no one to forbid that aristocratic union.

Gervoise was quite free to wed whom he pleased. His first wife was carried to a village tavern by a couple of boors, with an inquisitive crowd following at the heels of her bearers, while her husband knelt before the altar to swear fidelity to a fairer bride.

Short widowhoods have been the fashion ever since the Prince of Denmark’s flighty mother consented to make Claudius a happy man; and certainly Gervoise Palgrave’s time of mourning was not a long one.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Amongst the crowd that remained to fill the shadowy aisles of the old church during the marriage ceremony was one man who had kept himself completely hidden behind the rustic spectators in the churchyard, and had yet contrived to keep a watchful eye upon every detail of the strange scene enacted there. This man was the wandering artist, the tramp and tumbler, Volterchoker, who had been lately perambulating in solitary dignity, or “on his own hook,” as he elegantly termed it. Few market-days had passed on which the accomplished Volterchoker had not appeared, early or late, in the busy market-place of Avondale, to earn his modest reward by the spinning of basins, or dextrous handling of gilded balls; and he had never appeared in Avondale market-place without managing to obtain precise information as to the past, present, or probable future movements of Lord Haughton. He had thus kept himself fully au courant as to the proceedings of his late fellow-wanderer, while at the same time obtaining a decent living between Birmingham, Avondale, and two or three other towns within some twenty to thirty miles’ distance.

Thus it was that on the morning of the earl’s marriage, Herr von Volterchoker — duly forewarned of the event — was able to present himself at the church-gates modestly muffled in greatcoat and woollen comforter, unnoted by the rustic crowd. Nor in the church did he attract any more attention. He sat in a darksome little pew under one of the galleries; and Lord Haughton had no idea that this disreputable acquaintance assisted at his nuptials, and took note of the ghastly pallor which disfigured the bridegroom’s countenance, and the husky tones of the bridegroom’s voice.

 

Chapter 15
Hidden In The Dead Woman’s Hand

After the wedding ceremonial was concluded, and the bridal procession had departed for Hyford Hall, Herr von Volterchoker lost no time in getting to the small town, or overgrown village, of Pendon, where he went straight to the Rose and Crown. The coroner’s jury were already assembled in a little parlour with a very low ceiling, made lower in reality by a ponderous beam that supported it, and made lower in appearance by reason of a dingy-brown paper that covered it.

Everybody about the Rose and Crown was full of the inquest, and the clown had no difficulty in obtaining all the information that was to be had upon the subject.

In the first place, the woman had been identified as a poor miserable tramp who had arrived at the King’s Head at Avondale upon the previous day.

The landlord of that hostelry was now in the parlour giving an account of what he knew before the coroner and his jury. The door of the parlour was open, though the assembly within was supposed to be a closed court, and there was a dense crowd in the low, narrow passage and on the threshold of the chamber.

Herr von Volterchoker had sharp elbows, and he was an unscrupulous pusher. He made his way through the crowd, and planted himself in the doorway, where he held his ground firmly, while the populace around and about him buffeted themselves into a temporary scarlet-fever.

“She were a pore tramp of a creetur’,” the landlord of the King’s Head was saying in reply to the coroner’s last question; “and, bein’ as it was market-day, Avondale was all of a stir like, and our place was full, and we didn’t take much notice of her. She asked if she could have a bed, and I told her no, we’d got no beds for such as her; and then she sat in the tap-room drinkin’ gin and cold beer — dog’s-nose them low sort of tramps call it; and then by and by she’d got no more money, I suppose, and she goes and clutters-up the doorway with a lot more, as very nigh drives me beside myself by not movin’ on; and then, when Lord Haughton and Miss Hurst came by on horseback, this rantipolin creetur’, she flew out at the horses’ heads, and was close upon run over. And she calls out something to my lord; and Miss Hurst she give a scream, and—”

“Stay. What did the woman say to Lord Haughton?” asked the coroner.

“I don’t know, your worship; I don’t think anybody heerd what the pore mad creetur’ said, but it must have been somethink wild-like, for Lord Haughton he says presently as she was mad, and everybody else says so too; and he says, ‘Take care of the poor creetur’, and let her have whatever she wants.’ And she was took up unconscious; but she soon come-to, with vinegar and burnt paper, and such-like, held close to her nose; but she was stupid and sleepy like with drink, and we put her in a room over the stables, away from the house — a comfortable room enough, your worship, and as clean as the best room in the house; gentleman’s servants sleeps in it sometimes when the house is full. And the cook, she went to look after the pore woman; but she didn’t seem to want anythink, and she flung herself down on the counterpane in her clothes, and fell fast asleep. We didn’t hear any more about her, your worship — bein’ busy all the evenin’, and havin’ no time to go dancin’ attendance upon tramps and suchlike — until next mornin’, when I says to my wife, ‘How about the pore woman what slept over the stable? She’s to have her breakfast, and everythink comfortable, accordin’ to Lord Haughton’s directions.’ But my wife she makes answer, ‘Lor’, James, the woman’s gone; Bill’ — that’s Bill the ostler—‘told me so this momin’. She went away last night.’ And if you’d like to hear all about it from Bill’s own lips, your worship,” added the landlord, “why you can, for he’s in the passage; and you may know him by his red hair, and he’s a’most always got a strawr in his mouth a-chewin’ of it,” added the landlord in a confidential undertone to the official who made a move towards the door, in the evident intention of going to seek Bill.

Bill the ostler was found by means of this description, and came lumbering into the room presently, with a grin upon his face, as on some festive occasion. He was duly sworn, and then was asked what he knew about the dead woman. A great deal of questioning was necessary before Bill could be got to state his case clearly; but after considerable beating about the bush, the following information was extorted from him:

Between ten and eleven o’clock — a little after the chiming of the half-hour by the bells of St. Gwendoline’s Church — a man had come up to him, as he was just about shutting the gates of the stable-yard, and had asked him if there wasn’t a strange woman in the house — a woman who had spoken to Lord Haughton that afternoon. He had replied to the effect that there was such a woman, not in the house, but in a kind of loft over the stable. The ostler had pointed at the same time to the window of the loft, where there was a glimmer of light from a rushlight that the cook had left there. The man made no more ado, but went straight to the stable below the loft, clambered up the ladder leading to the woman’s sleeping-place, and five minutes afterwards came down again with the woman. They left the yard together; but before going away, the woman told the ostler it was all right, she was going to her husband. As to the man, the night was so dark that Bill didn’t see his face, — not to know it, Bill said, — though he had a kind of a fancy that the man’s voice wasn’t altogether strange to him, but he couldn’t say when or where he’d heard it before. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, and wore a velveteen coat. This was all that Bill the ostler had to say for himself. This was all that the coroner could extract from Bill, work him as he might.

It wasn’t very much. The woman had been seen to leave the stables of the King’s Head at half-past ten o’clock, with a strange man, and had never been seen again until the next morning, when she was found by a farm-labourer, floating in among the rushes that fringe the banks of the Avon, as it flows through the meadows near Pendon.

The jury did not long deliberate upon their verdict.

The woman had been found drowned.

Nobody for a moment suspected foul play. There were no traces of violence, and who could have had any motive for attempting to injure a wretched tramp, who had nothing to be robbed of? The woman had parted with the man, most likely, people said, in discussing the inquest, and had lost her way in the darkness, and wandered into the river, or else had wilfully thrown herself into the water.

The coroner and the jurymen went home, and as it was long past dinner-time in Pendon, the crowd dispersed from the public chambers and passages of the Rose and Crown. But Herr von Volterchoker remained. He contrived to scrape acquaintance with the landlord, and as he produced a handful of gold and silver when he paid for his refreshment, the landlord concluded that he was a respectable bonâ-fide traveller, shabby and doubtful of aspect though he was. After ordering and doing ample justice to his dinner, he inquired if he could have a bed, and anon announced his intention of remaining in the house; whereupon the landlord invited him to take his tea in the snug little bar-parlour, where the fire burned as brightly as fires only burn in bar-parlours, and where there was a birdcage, with a bit of green baize hanging over it, a net of lemons, a little grove of clean clay-pipes bristling up out of a brown earthenware jug, an eight-day clock in a corner, and a highly-varnished and rather fly-blown coloured print of the Avondale and Pendon Highflyer mail-coach hanging above the crockeryware shepherdesses on the mantelpiece.

Herr von Volterchoker was not particularly fond of tea in a general way; but on this occasion he drank as many cupfuls of that beverage as his landlady would give him. Of course there was a good deal of conversation during the social meal, and of course that conversation was almost entirely upon the subject of the drowned woman, still lying in an obscure back-chamber of the snug little inn.

In the course of this discussion, Herr von Volterchoker heard how the chief surgeon in Pendon and the jurymen had been into the dismal back-chamber to see the corpse, before the examination of the witnesses, and how the medical man had declared that the woman had been alive when she fell into the water, and that death had ensued from suffocation by drowning.

“Perhaps you’d like to see the poor creature, sir?” the landlady said to Herr von Volterchoker.

The clown replied that he would like to see the dead woman; and by and by, when the teapot had been emptied, after the third watering of the leaves, and the last pile of buttered toast had been made away with, the landlady of the Rose and Crown lighted a candle, and conducted her visitor to the chamber of death.

The dead woman was lying on a table, with a sheet thrown over her rigid face and figure. The landlady lifted the sheet, and Herr von Volterchoker took the candle from her hand, and looked long and earnestly at the face.

“There’s a look in the face that I’ve seen before,” he thought; “the boy has light hair and blue eyes; but there’s a look in this woman’s dead face that I’ve often seen in his, for all that. Yours was a short widowhood, Mr. Jarvis, or Mr. Gervoise Palgrave, or my Lord Haughton, or whatever you please to call yourself,” muttered the clown, as he stood with the candle in his hand, looking down at the face of the dead.

He was startled by something falling at his feet, something that fell with a jingling noise upon the stone flooring of the room.

The landlady had dropped a bunch of keys out of a little basket that she carried on her arm. She was a portly woman, and did not relish the exertion of stooping; she looked piteously at the clown.

Would you mind—” she began.

“Picking up the keys. Of course not,” said Herr von Volterchoker.

He knelt down and put the candle on the ground beside him. He found the keys, and he found something else, too, which he picked up and examined thoughtfully, still kneeling on the stone floor.

It was only a few shreds of brightly-coloured worsted — red, green, and blue; but the clown scrutinised the scraps of woollen stuff as earnestly as if he had been an entymologist, and had just found some new insect.

He got up presently, and showed the shreds of worsted to the landlady.

“Does this belong to anything of yours?” he asked.

“Not it,” answered the landlady. “I can tell you where those bits of worsted came from; they were in the palm of that poor drowned creature’s right hand, and it was clenched upon them as tight as if it had been made of iron. Mr. Manders, the surgeon, he forced the poor soul’s fingers open, and the bits of worsted dropped out.”

“And he didn’t take any special notice of them?”

“Not he, sir.”

“Nor any of the jurymen?”

“No, sir.”

“Humph!” muttered Herr von Volterchoker. “What sharp fellows these coroner’s jurymen are, to be sure; and what a blessing that we’ve got such clever people always ready to investigate the circumstances of our deaths, and bring foul play to light, when we don’t come by our deaths fairly!”

The clown took an old envelope out of his pocket, and put the scraps of worsted into it.

“I’ll keep these, if you’ve no objection, ma’am?” he said.

“Objection! lor’, no, sir. If you’ve a fancy to keep them as a kind of curiosity like, pray do; you’re as welcome as can be to them.”

“There was nothing found about the woman — no letter or paper — nothing to give a clue to her identity?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Humph! well, I won’t detain you in this cold room any longer. I’ll go out and take a stroll between this and suppertime.”

Herr von Volterchoker put on his hat, and went out into the village street, there to deliberate at his leisure upon the discoveries of the day.

“How did those scraps of wool come into the woman’s hand?” he asked himself: “they must belong to something that she snatched at when she was drowning. They belong to no garment of hers: they must have belonged to some other person’s clothes; and that other person threw her into the river. The bits of worsted look like part of the fringe of a woman’s shawl. It was a woman, then, that threw her into the water. But how can that be? — she was last seen with a man. She left the stable-yard of the King’s Head in company with a man, at half-past ten o’clock. She was found drowned this morning. Who can doubt that the man drowned her? But who was the man? Could it be that man in disguise? And then, how about these scraps of coloured worsted in my pocket? They must have belonged to a woman’s garment; men don’t wear such bright colours. Yes,” thought the clown suddenly, “they do sometimes. The coloured worsted might have belonged to a man’s knitted comforter.”

Herr von Volterchoker paused before one of the windows of an emporium which was called by the Pendonians “the shop.” There were other shops in the village, but this was the shop par excellence, by right of its superior standing.

It was a queer, low-ceilinged place, with a window upon each side of the door, dingy, and dimly lit up by the tremulous flare of oil-lamps. Stationery and haberdashery, grocery, crockery, butter, cheese, pork, bacon, and confectionery, children’s toys, working-men’s smock-frocks, and wide-awake hats of hard, coarse-grained felt, were all to be had at “the shop.” There was a post-office also attached to the establishment, and a glimmering lamp, that was very little better than a lantern, hung over the letter-box at an angle of the old-fashioned house.

Herr von Volterchoker went into this shop. There were some customers gathered together in a little knot near the counter, talking, in solemn and mysterious tones, to the proprietor of the establishment, about the wedding, or the inquest, no doubt; but at the sight of a stranger, the proprietor left his friends and patrons to shift for themselves.

“What can I do for you, sir?” he asked blandly.

“I want something warm for my throat, that’s all. This kind of weather plays the deuce with a man if he’s subject to bronchitis. I want something to wrap round my throat — something soft and comfortable.”

The proprietor looked rather doubtfully at his customer. There was very little of Herr von Volterchoker visible, except his nose, the end of which appeared above thick folds of woollen stuff.

It was scarcely within the range of possibility for the clown to be more wrapped up than he was at that moment. But, of course, it was the proprietor’s business to sell his goods, and not to wonder as to the requirements of his customers; so he retired to some mysterious corner of the shop, and reappeared presently with a couple of wooden boxes containing knitted scarfs, long and fleecy, and comfortable-looking.

“Here’s a sweet thing, sir; quite new, which we can highly recommend at—”

But Herr von Volterchoker did not stop to hear the usual formula of recommendation. He turned the two wooden boxes upside-down without ceremony, and emptied the contents upon the counter.

The fleecy comforters were dark chocolate, dingy claret-colour and black, dirty orange, and insipid lavender. There was no red, green, or blue. There was nothing that matched the scraps of worsted in the clown’s waistcoat-pocket.

“Thank you,” he said coolly; “I don’t see the sort of thing I want. Are these all the comforters you’ve got?”

“They are, sir.”

“And you’ve had no others this year?”

“No, sir, no others. These are generally approved, sir, and—”

“Humph! I wanted something brighter — livelier colours. You had livelier colours last year, perhaps.”

“No, sir, not livelier colours than these, sir.” The proprietor pointed to the dingy claret and the dirty orange. “These have been very much approved, sir; livelier colours ain’t approved in comforters.”

“Ah, it’s no matter. Good-night.”

Herr von Volterchoker walked out of the shop. The proprietor looked after him with a flush of indignation mantling upon his fat face. He was rather an important man in Pendon, and was not accustomed to be treated so cavalierly.

“That’s a queer customer,” he said, as he returned to the group of gossips crowded about the counter, behind which the proprietor’s wife, and the proprietor’s son and daughter, were busy weighing ounces of tea and half-pounds of butter; “that’s a queer customer, whoever he is; and not much good either, I should say.”

On the following afternoon Herr von Volterchoker walked from Pendon to Avondale. He was a very good walker, and indeed, had become pretty well used to pedestrian exercise in the course of long, weary trampings through the country with Mr. Cadgers and his equestrian troupe. The frost had set in again, so the roads were dry and hard once more, and the sound of horses’ hoofs and rolling wheels, the jingling of bells, the occasional barking of a noisy sheep-dog, and sturdy labourers’ voices calling to each other on the high-road, travelled far in the thin, frosty air.

The town of Avondale was very quiet to-day; for it was only on market-days that there was much life or bustle in the queer old streets, and Herr von Volterchoker found no hindrance to the business that had brought him thither.

It did not appear to be very important business after all; for he employed himself in going from shop to shop, lookings at woollen comforters of all colours and descriptions. But he was difficult to please; and it was a very long time before he got the sort of thing he wanted.

At last, however, after he had been walking about the little town for upwards of two hours, and had sorely tried the patience of every haberdasher in the place, by reason of giving a great deal of trouble and not expending sixpence, he found a dingy, low-roofed shop, in a back street, or rather lane, close by the ponderous archway under St. Gwendoline’s Church. The shop was a miscellaneous sort of emporium, kept by a widow-woman who had a day-school in the back-parlour, and who sold sweet-stuff and gingerbread, and slate-pencil and writing-paper, and pickled cabbage and onions, as well as haberdashery.

But small as the good woman’s stock-in-trade might be, Herr von Volterchoker found that amongst it which he had not been able to discover elsewhere, namely, a knitted woollen scarf with stripes of gaudy colours — blue and red and green.

“This is the sort of thing I want,” said the clown, selecting the rainbow-hued muffler from half-a-dozen fabrics of a dingier character; “this is the sort of thing for me. Something bright and lively. Is it hand-knit, now, or wove?” Herr von Volterchoker went to the doorway of the little shop with the scarf in his hand, in order to satisfy himself on this point, by a close inspection of the fabric.

During this inspection he took from his waistcoat-pocket the envelope containing those scraps of worsted which he had picked up from the floor of the room in which the drowned woman lay, and contrived to compare them with the material of the scarf in his hand. They were exactly of the same colour and quality. He went back to the little counter.

“Yes,” he said, “it is hand-knit, and it’s the nicest made scarf I’ve seen in all Avondale. I should fancy now, that, first and last, you’ve sold a good many of these, eh?”

The widow shook her head dolefully.

“Business in Avondale ain’t what it used to be in the old coaching days, sir,” she answered. “I had but two comforters of that pattern; they was knit by a poor woman in the almshouses, and the profit on ’em isn’t more than threehalfpence, and I’ve had one of ’em on my hands ever since last Christmas was a twelvemonth.”

“And you had only two of them first and last, including, this one?”

“No, sir, never more than two.”

“And when did you say you sold the other one?” asked Herr von Volterchoker carelessly enough, as he put his purchase in his pocket.

“I sold it last Christmas twelvemonth, sir, to Lord Haughton’s under-gamekeeper — not this Lord Haughton, sir, but the poor lord as was killed in the steeplechase last August.”

“To be sure. You sold it to the last Lord Haughton’s gamekeeper.”

“Yes, sir, and a good-hearted, pleasant-spoken young man he is, though very wild-like, and very much in favour with the present earl, which they do say the present earl was wet-nursed by Mrs. Melwood, which is Humphrey Melwood’s mother.”

“Humphrey Melwood! I think I know the young man — a dark, gipsy-looking fellow, with ear-rings in his ears.”

“Yes, sir. He’s got into disgrace many times, with drinkin’ and other wild ways; but he never was better off than he is at present, for Lord Haughton treats him quite as a kind of friend and companion like, and Mrs. Melwood she keeps the principal lodge at Palgrave Chase she do, as pretty a little gorthic cottage as you might wish to live in, sir.”

The widow, having once broken the ice, would have been content to talk for half an hour together upon this or any other topic.

Herr von Volterchoker handed her a crown-piece, and she was a very long time selecting the change for that coin out of the little heap of silver and copper in a wooden bowl, which she had taken out of a drawer under the counter.

But the clown had obtained all the information that was likely to be of any value to him. He took his change, wished the widow good-day, and left the shop.

 

Chapter 16
The Detective Science

The principal lodge at Palgrave Chase was on the high-road between Pendon and Avondale; so Herr von Volterchoker was able to pass it on his way back to the Rose and Crown without going an inch out of his straight road.

But he did not pass the little gothic cottage, pleasantly sheltered by the black foliage of a group of spreading yew-trees, and a tall hedge of thick laurel. He paused at the great gates, and peered in through the iron scrollwork. A woman was standing at the open door, and a glow of red firelight streamed from the threshold out upon the hard, frosty ground, on which light flakes of snow were falling in the cold, gray twilight.

It was a very pretty picture, that of the gothic windows reddened by the firelight, the crimson glow upon the frost-bound path, the drifting snow, the background of dense wintry foliage, the steel-gray sky with one low streak of yellow light fading out in the west; but Herr von Volterchoker did not look at it from an artistic point of view; he only contemplated it with an eye to business.

Decent rearing and education this man had known in his early years, but the sense of goodness or beauty had never been given to him. He had a natural capacity for wickedness, and had graduated on racecourses and in gaming-booths, and taken high honours in the rogues’ university. He was a liar and a thief — a man in whom the greed of gain was a vile disease so deeply implanted in his nature that it would perhaps have broken out in him had he been born in a palace, undisputed heir to a kingdom. He was a man who could trade upon the vices of his fellow-men, and hold it no shame to prosper by reason of the perdition of his fellow-creatures’ souls. His life had been for more than thirty years a long career of crime and infamy, sometimes prosperous, sometimes unlucky. He had been a traveller in almost every quarter of the globe, and had perhaps never so long existed by honest means as during those two years in which he had been content to earn a scanty living in the employment of the worthy Cadgers.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said to the woman standing at the lodge-door. “Is your son at home?”

“Yes, sir,” Margery Melwood answered, with a sigh. Humphrey’s at home.”

“Could I see him?”

The woman hesitated a little.

“Did you want to see him very particular, sir?” she asked.

“Yes, I do want to see him particularly. He knows me; I’m an old friend of Lord Haughton’s.”

“You couldn’t make it convenient to call to-morrow, or Monday, sir?”

“No. I’m going up to town by the first train to-morrow morning.”

The woman came to the gate, unlocked it, and admitted Herr von Volterchoker. The lodge was only divided from the mansion by a lawn and shrubbery. Beyond this lawn there rose a steep terraced slope from which the towers of the old house frowned on the wintry landscape.

Lord Haughton’s mansion looked very black and gloomy now, for there were no lights in the mullioned windows, no sign of habitation upon this the principal side of the house.

Herr von Volterchoker followed Margery Melwood into the lodge. The fire burned cheerily in the comfortable little chamber, a green log of resinous wood hissed and sputtered and flamed upon the top of the coals, like some clamorous young pretender who creates a flare and blaze, but gives no honest warmth. There was a tray, and some teacups and saucers set out upon the round table; there were gaudy-coloured pictures on the walls, and a pert little Dutch clock in a corner, ticking loud enough for the noblest eight-day that ever Transatlantic poet heard upon the stairs of quaint, Puritan farmhouse. There was every sign of comfort in the simple rustic chamber.

Herr von Volterchoker’s quick eye took notice of all this, and then turned to Humphrey Melwood, who was sitting by the fire, with his elbow resting upon the little tea-table, his legs stretched out upon the hearth, his chin drooping on his breast, and his eyes fixed in a vacant stare.

At the first glance, the intruder saw that the young man had been drinking. His face was wan and haggard, his rumpled hair was tossed in a mass upon his forehead, his dress was loose and disorderly.

At the second glance, Herr von Volterchoker saw, hanging loosely round Humphrey Melwood’s neck, that very scarf which the gamekeeper had bought a year before of the widow-woman at Avondale.

Yes, there were the gaudy colours, the colours that matched those scraps of worsted that had been found clenched by the stiffened fingers of the dead woman’s hand.

Herr von Volterchoker put his hand almost involuntarily on the waistcoat-pocket in which he carried the envelope containing the shreds of coloured worsted.

“I think I’ve got you pretty tight, Mr. Humphrey Melwood,” he thought; “but it isn’t you I want, it’s your master. It’ll be rather a sell for me if the murdered woman turns out to be some simple-hearted beauty that you wanted to get rid of. But I don’t think there’s much chance of that. There was a look in that drowned woman’s face that I’ve seen in Gervoise Palgrave’s son. And then, again, the woman flew out at my lord, and caught hold of his bridle as he rode through Avondale. Why should she do that unless — unless she was his wife — his miserable, abandoned wife? I don’t forget what he said on the day when I tattooed the child’s arm: ‘There is a person who will try to get this boy into her power,’ said Mr. Jarvis, alias Gervoise Palgrave. Who should that person be except the mother of the boy?”

These thoughts travelled through the clown’s mind swift as lightning. He only stood for a minute or so looking round the flrelit room, and yet he thought all this, and saw that Humphrey Melwood wore a velveteen coat, and remembered how Bill, the ostler from the King’s Head, had said that the man who fetched the woman away from the stable wore such a coat.

“Good evening, Mr. Melwood,” he said; “I suppose you’ve forgotten me.”

“I have, indeed,” the young man answered, in a thick voice; wh-where ’v I see y’ — b’fore?”

“On the night after the steeplechase at Avondale — the night when Gervoise Palgrave’s son was stolen.”

Humphrey Melwood started up and struck his hand upon the table.

“Hold y’r tongue!” he said. “Master Gervoise don’t care about people knowing he ever had a son — he don’t care about folks talking of his first marriage.”

It seemed as if the very mention of his foster-brother’s name had sobered the young man. The stupid, vacant look of his eyes gave place to a sudden brightness; a dark crimson colour dyed his olive skin. He was used to drinking, and the fumes of the liquor he had taken speedily dispersed as his intellect was aroused from its dull torpor.

“Mother,” he said, “if this gentleman wants to talk to me about private business, you’d better go up-stairs.”

“But you won’t drink any more, Humphrey,” urged Margery Melwood, in a pleading tone, glancing anxiously at a half-empty brandy-bottle on the mantelpiece as she spoke.

“No, I sha’n’t drink any more,” the young man answered moodily; “I don’t see that there’s much good in drink. It doesn’t stop a man from thinking, or save him from horrid dreams when he goes to sleep.”

Margery Melwood sighed as she looked at her son, and then went slowly up a little staircase leading out of the room, and closed by a door that was like the door of a cupboard.

Humphrey turned his chair with an impatient gesture — the action of a man whose mind was so disturbed as to create a vague sense of bodily discomfort — and faced the fire. The yellow flare of the resinous pine-wood shone full upon his haggard cheeks, his black gipsy eyes, sombre-looking and bloodshot to-night.

“Well,” he said abruptly; “what is it you want with me, Mr. — I’m blest if I remember your name!”

“My name is Vokes — William Vokes.”

“Well, Mr. Vokes — Mr. William Vokes — what has brought you to Palgrave Chase?”

“A very important business, and a very strange business, Mr. Melwood,” answered the clown, dropping his voice almost to a whisper. “I only reached Pendon in time to be a witness of Lord Haughton’s second marriage. I want to know how his first wife came by her death.”

The tawny hue of the gamekeeper’s face changed to a dark livid pallor.

“What’s Lord Haughton’s first wife to you that you should bother your head about her?” he asked in a defiant tone.

The clown was silent for a few moments, reflecting on this question. Humphrey took the brandy-bottle from the mantelpiece, poured some of the spirit into one of the tea-cups at his elbow, and drained the cup as carelessly as if its contents had been water.

“O ho, Mr. Humphrey Melwood,” thought the clown, “if that’s a specimen of your habits, you’re rather a dangerous friend and ally for the Earl of Haughton.”

“What was the woman to you that you should trouble your head about her?” repeated Humphrey.

“I’ll tell you,” the clown answered gravely; “Lord Haughton’s wife was my niece.”

“Your niece!”

“Yes, my own flesh and blood; do you understand? I’m an old man, and I’ve knocked about the world a good deal; but my feelings mayn’t be quite dead for all that. The wife of Gervoise Palgrave was my niece, and I want to know how she met with her death. She was seen at Avondale on the afternoon of the day before yesterday. She was seen alive on that day; and she was seen to speak to Lord Haughton as he rode through the town with Miss Hurst. Between ten and eleven o’clock that night she was seen to leave the stables of the King’s Head with a man; a broad-shouldered, stalwart fellow, in a velveteen coat; and the next time she was seen she was carried dead through Pendon churchyard. I want to know what happened in the interim.”

Humphrey Melwood wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the cuff of his coat.

“What should I know about her?” he muttered; “why do you ask me about her?”

“My dear fellow,” the clown answered, with an entire change of manner, “I only want information, but I must get it how and where I can. You are a friend of Lord Haughton’s. I expected that you’d know all the particulars of his wife’s death. It was odd, wasn’t it, that she should be drowned upon the eve of the earl’s second marriage? It was still more strange that I should happen to be at Pendon on the day of the inquest at the Rose and Crown, and should see the poor dead creature, and recognise her as my niece, whom I hadn’t seen for many a year, for I’ve been a wanderer upon the face of the earth, and parted from all my kith and kin. Well, well, it’s a strange world, a very strange world. You can’t give me any information about that poor creature’s death?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see her?”

“Never,” answered the young man, after a brief pause.

“Ah, well, it’s an unlucky business altogether. I suppose Miss Hurst, the present Countess of Haughton, has been told nothing about this first wife of Gervoise Palgrave?”

“I don’t know,” Humphrey Melwood answered sullenly. “If you want to know the Earl of Haughton’s business, you’d better go and question him.”

“But, my dear fellow, be reasonable,” exclaimed the clown. “Lord Haughton has started for the Continent, with his lovely young bride. You don’t want me to follow him, and spoil all the pleasure of the honeymoon by asking him awkward questions about his first wife?”

“God forbid!” muttered Humphrey with a groan.

“Very well, then, I must ask questions of you; and if I were you, I’d answer ’em civilly. You’ll find it wise to do so. However, I’ll wish you good-night now, and look in again another time. You don’t seem in the humour for a pleasant chat. I’ll leave you to the young man’s best companion — the brandy-bottle — and your own thoughts. Ta-ta!”

Herr von Volterchoker waved his hand gracefully, opened the door, and went out. It was quite dark now, and the ground was white with snow, against which the yews and cypress looked blacker than ever.

The interior of the lodge was lighted by the red glow of the fire. Herr von Volterchoker paused for a few moments upon a narrow slip of grass that bordered the broad gravelled carriage road, and looked in at the latticed window, whence he beheld a strange piece of dumb-show in the firelit chamber.

Humphrey Melwood suddenly sprang up from his moody attitude by the fire, knocking over his chair as he rose, snatched a gun from its place above the little chimneypiece, cocked it, and rushed towards the door of the lodge.

But within a few paces of the door he stopped as suddenly as he had risen from his chair. He let the stock of the gun fall slowly to the ground, passed his hand across his forehead with a convulsive shudder, like a man who awakes from some hideous dream. Then he went back to the chimneypiece, replaced the gun, and sat down once more before the fire, with his feet on the fender, his elbows on his knees, and his face hidden in his hands.

Herr von Volterchoker watched him for a minute or so as he sat in this attitude before the fire, and then turned away with a contemptuous shrug.

“It’s no great credit to any fellow to reckon you up,” he muttered to himself. “My game here lies straight before me, as smooth as a turnpike-road. I must work the master through the man. You’re in luck’s way, Mr. Vokes. That unde dodge was rather a good one, I flatter myself.”

 

Chapter 17
Hunting Up The Past

Herr Von Volterohoker left Pendon the day after his interview with Humphrey Melwood; but before departing he informed the landlord of the Rose and Crown that he should soon be again a guest at that cosy little hostelry. Arrived in the great City, he took a cab at the railway-station, and ordered the man to drive to one of the dingiest localities in Lambeth. The cabman drove across Westminster-bridge, and turned aside under a railway-arch in the Westminster-road. The clown stopped the cab, and got out under the archway. He paid and dismissed the driver, and then walked away at a pretty brisk rate. He turned a corner presently, and penetrated into a narrow little street, dingier and dirtier even than the one he had left.

There were some children playing in a group upon the door-step, before a miserable little chandler’s shop, in which the atmosphere was made horrible by the odour of red herrings, strong yellow soap, cheese, and tobacco. Herr von Volterchoker thrust the juvenile population right and left of him as ruthlessly as if they had been a litter of youthful pigs, and strode into the shop. He took no notice of the proprietress of the establishment, nor of the slip-shod matrons and old-faced children crowding about the counter, but pushed his way through a narrow pass between a pile of firewood and a treacle-tub, and opened a little door.

Beyond this door there was a square yard of passage, and a staircase so narrow that the two walls were black and greasy with the friction of people’s shoulders; so close and low, that the unaccustomed visitant suffered temporary asphyxia, and was powerless to draw breath until he reached a better atmosphere.

The better atmosphere was only good by comparison; for the room which Herr von Volterchoker entered was dark with a brown fog which crept in from out of doors, and misty with the steam of a washing-tub on a bench near the window. A couple of coloured shirts dangled, dripping wet, from a frayed rope that was hung across the room. They looked something like military trophies hanging from the roof of a chapel, and were quite as ragged. A woman was standing before the wash-tub, with her bare arms plunged in the dirty soapsuds. A boy was standing near the dingy fireplace; not standing in the normal position of humanity, but supporting himself upon the palms of his poor little hands, and with his feet in the air. The woman looked round, and the boy turned a somersault, and dropped into his natural position dextrously enough, as Herr von Volterchoker’s creaking footstep sounded upon the carpetless floor.

The woman was a careworn, slovenly matron, of about forty. The boy was pale and thin; but he was very pretty, and had something of the haughty face of his father, Gervoise Palgrave, Earl of Haughton. He ran forward eagerly to meet the clown.

“We thought you were never coming back again, uncle,” he said. “O, do tell me about papa!”

“What should I tell you about him,” the clown answered sulkily enough, except what I told you before? He’s gone to America, and he’ll never come back till he’s made a large fortune; and that won’t be for a long time — not till you’re a man; so what you’ve got to do is to be a very good boy, and to obey your uncle.”

The boy looked wistfully at the clown’s face.

“I don’t think you are my uncle,” he said; “papa never said you were.”

“Your papa was a little too high in his notions,” Herr von Volterchoker answered curtely, “and he looked down upon his poor relations. However, let bygones be bygones; I’m willing to forget and forgive. Are you happy with Mrs. Beppo, Master Georgey?”

“Happy!” repeated the boy; “no, I’ve never been happy since papa went away. I can’t be happy without him; I loved him so — I loved him so dearly; and it was unkind of him to send me away that night — that cruel night, when you tied a handkerchief over my mouth, and sent me away with Beppo and the monkey.”

Stash that!” cried Herr von Volterchoker fiercely. “Did anybody ever hear such a young varmint to talk! Now, you look here, Georgey,” added the clown, seating himself upon the only available chair, and taking the boy between his knees, “whatever was done that night was done for your good, and whatever has been done all along has been done for your good; and if your friends didn’t love you, they wouldn’t have done it. So cheer up, my little lad, and be a good boy, and mind what your affectionate uncle says to you. Things have taken a turn with me; and instead of leaving you here with Beppo, to learn posturing and go out by and by with the organ and the monkey, I’ve half a mind to send you to a nice comfortable boarding-school — twenty pounds a year, everything found, and no holidays. How would you like that, Master Georgey?”

The boy hesitated, and looked at the woman bending over the washtub.

“Mrs. Beppo has been very good to me,” he said gently. The woman turned round and smiled at the boy.

“Shure, now, I’ve done my best, Jargy darlint,” she cried; “but it’s little enough the best is in a place where praytees is fourteenpence a stone. But I never did see a more contented little craytur. Shure, I often thinks it’s a fairy changeling he is, and not a boy at all at all.”

Herr von Volterchoker looked rather contemptuously at the enthusiastic Irishwoman.

“Stick to your washing,” he said; “I want to talk to the little one.”

“Well, thin, if the luck’s changed wid yer honour, ye’ll maybe give us a trifle to drink yer health wid,” said the Irishwoman in a very insinuating tone.

Herr von Volterchoker took a sovereign from his pocket, and flung it on the little table.

“I suppose that’ll satisfy you, Biddy,” he said.

Hooroo!” cried the woman; “sure yer honour’s a prince this mornin’. I haven’t seen the loikes of that since I forgot meself and me familee so much as to marry a low-lived organ-grindher — not but what Beppo’s better than some, and it isn’t complainin’ I am. But you’re not goin’ to take the child away, are ye now, asthore? The bit o’ money you pay us comes uncommon handy; and sure the craytur’s such a blessed little darlint, that the heart that didn’t take to um would be hardher than stone.”

“Hold your tongue, Biddy,” exclaimed the clown impatiently; “I’m not going to take the boy away just yet, but I’m going to take him for a walk this afternoon. — Will you go, Georgey?”

“Yes, uncle; it’s nice out of doors, and it’s so dark and dull in here. — But I love you, Mrs. Beppo,” the boy added, smiling at his Irish protectress; “and I’m always happy with you, because you’re so much kinder than mamma was.”

He put on a shabby little cloth cap, and declared himself ready to accompany Herr von Volterchoker; but the Irishwoman left her washtub and tied a woollen handkerchief round the boy’s neck. Then she kissed him tenderly, and handed him over to the clown.

“Ye’ll bring um back to-night?” she said to Herr von Volterchoker.

“Yes, most likely,” answered the clown; “but you needn’t be frightened if I don’t.”

He took the boy’s hand, and was half-way down the narrow staircase before the Irishwoman could make any remonstrance.

“Now, Georgey,” he said, as soon as they had left the chandler’s shop, “I want you to tell me where you lived before you came to Putney-heath that night with your father.”

We lived in a very narrow place, crowded and dirty, like this,” the boy answered.

“You don’t know the name of the place?”

No, I don’t know the name of it.”

“And before that, where did you live?”

“Before that we lived with grandpapa.”

“Ah, to be sure, you lived with grandpapa; but where?”

“In a street that was dark and narrow, but not very dirty, and where the children had shoes and stockings. In the last place they ran about with bare feet, or had horrid boots that let their toes comes through. I remember grandpapa’s house quite well; it was near the river, and near a big dreadful-looking place, that papa said was a prison for wicked men; and there was a big church near — O, such a big church, bigger than any other church in the world! — and another big place that wasn’t finished being built, and where there used to be lights burning at night.”

Herr von Volterchoker reflected for a few moments.

“A prison,” he muttered, “and the river, and a big church. Why, it must have been down Millbank way, I should think. Do you remember if the place was called Westminster, Georgey?”

“Yes,” the boy answered; “I think I have heard that word before.”

“Do you think you could find your grandpapa’s house, Georgey, if you were taken close to it?”

“I’d try. I should like to see grandpapa; he was always kind.”

“Very well, then,” answered the clown, we’ll try and find grandpapa.”

He took the boy across Westminster-bridge, past the Houses of Parliament, in the direction of Millbank.

Now, Georgey, do you know where you are?” he asked.

“Yes, yes,” the boy answered, looking about him; “there’s the water, and there’s the big church; it was this way grandpapa lived, down here.”

He pulled the clown towards a narrow street leading out of the main thoroughfare; a quiet little street, where there were humble shops and shabby-looking old-fashioned houses. The boy dragged his companion half-way down this street, and then stopped suddenly before a carver and gilder’s shop, above the window of which was painted the name of William Pickshaw.

“Look!” he cried, pointing to the picture-frames; “that’s grandpapa’s shop; I remember the gold things in the window.” Herr von Volterchoker opened the half-glass door, and a bell rang loudly to announce the entrance of a customer. A little old man, with a canvas apron round his waist, and his hands smeared with gold-leaf, came out of a back-room which was evidently used as a workshop. Georgey ran forward to him, and took hold of his hand.

“It’s me, grandpapa,” he cried; “it’s me! You know me, grandpapa, don’t you? You know Georgey?”

The old man uttered an exclamation of surprise, and then snatched the boy up in his arms.

“Georgey!” he cried; “why, Georgey, I never thought to see you again. Where’s Aggy? — where’s your mother?”

The boy shook his head.

“I don’t know, grandpapa,” he said.

“You don’t know where your mother is?”

“No; we left her. Papa took me away from her; O, a long time ago, in the summer.”

“You left her? Why?”

“Because she was unkind; because she used to beat me, grandpapa,” the boy answered, in a half whisper; “and because she used to go out and take my clothes away, and papa’s clothes, and come home and seem almost as if she was mad. I was afraid of her, grandpapa, and papa was very unhappy with her, and so we ran away; and we were very happy until papa went away and left me with uncle; and since then I’ve been with Beppo and Mrs. Beppo and the monkey.”

The old man stared at his grandson with a stupefied expression.

“You don’t understand him, do you, sir?” said Herr von Volterchoker. “I suppose it is some time since you last saw him?”

“It is, indeed, sir,” answered the old man; “I haven’t set eyes upon the child, or my daughter, or my daughter’s husband, for the last twelve months. They left me last Christmas twelvemonth, sir; because, to tell the truth, I was obliged to turn them out, as you may say. Gervoise Gilbert hadn’t a sixpence to bless himself with, so he couldn’t afford to pay me any rent for my rooms, and I couldn’t afford to go without the money, bein’ a poor man, sir, and working very hard to pay my way. So they went, and where they went I never found out, for Gervoise had a good deal of pride about him, and poverty seemed to sour and turn him, somehow or other, and he was very close and high in his ways. And as for my unfortunate daughter, I’m sorry to say she’d taken to drinking before that time, and didn’t seem to care what became of her. Not that the blame’s all due to her, sir, for if she’d had a different kind of husband she might have been a different woman. So I let ’em go, sir, and I never heard any more of ’em, from that day to this. But I suppose you know all about ’em, sir?”

Herr von Volterchoker shook his head.

“No, indeed,” he said, “I know very little of them.”

“You know where my poor Agatha is?”

“No; I only know that your son-in-law, Gervoise Gilbert, disappeared last summer, leaving this boy upon my hands.”

“Disappeared! but how, and where?”

The clown paused and reflected before he answered this question.

“Why, it was in the neighbourhood of Manchester,” he said presently. “Your son-in-law had been painting scenery for a theatrical company, a wandering kind of company, of which I was a member; and one night after the performances were finished, he told me he was going away, and asked me to take care of his boy for him till he came back, or sent to me for the child. I’m rather a soft-hearted fellow about children; and I really couldn’t find the heart to say no. So I took the boy, and I’ve done the best I could for him ever since. — Haven’t I, Georgey?”

“Yes, uncle.”

“The boy calls me uncle,” said Herr von Volterchoker; “that’s his affection. However, I’ve done my best for the child, out of friendship for the father; and as things have just taken a bit of a turn with me, I shall be able to do a good deal better for him henceforward, Mr. Pickshaw; but what I want is a little bit of a talk with you, so that I may understand what I’m doing before I go any farther.”

“To be sure, to be sure,” answered the old man; “nothing could be fairer than that. Any information I can give you, sir, you’re free and welcome to. But I wish you’d brought me some news about my daughter. I wish you could tell me something about my poor girl.”

Herr von Volterchoker shook his head.

“I’m sorry I can’t do that,” he said.

He meant to keep the secret of Agatha Palgrave’s death. It was a secret that might prove a mine of gold to him, if he knew how to play his cards properly.

“Will you walk upstairs, sir?” said Mr. Pickshaw; “we can talk a great deal more comfortably in the room over this. Not that there’s many customers to interrupt us, sir; trade’s very slack just now; very slack indeed. But the shop’s cold; so, perhaps you’d be kind enough to step upstairs?”

He opened the door, and led his visitor and the boy up a narrow flight of stairs, and into a decent sitting-room, with old-fashioned windows looking out upon the street.

There were deep oaken seats in these windows, and on one of them a girl was sitting, with her back turned towards the door. She turned round as she heard the footsteps of the men entering the room. It was quite dusk; but as the girl turned, the light of the fire shone full upon her face, and the clown saw that it was the living resemblance of that dead face which he had seen in the tavern at Pendon.

Herr von Volterchoker had considerable difficulty in refraining from some expression of surprise at the wonderful likeness between the living and the dead; but he recollected himself in time. He had declared himself an entire stranger to Agatha Palgrave, and he must therefore conceal his astonishment at the likeness betwixt the two sisters.

“I suppose that young lady is your daughter, Mr. Pickshaw,” he said carelessly.

“Yes,” answered the old man; “that’s Susan, my youngest daughter. She’s three years younger than Agatha.”

Susan Pickshaw recognised her little nephew, and took him up in her arms. She carried the boy to the window-seat, and placed him in her lap. They talked to each other in low voices, while Herr von Volterchoker and the old man seated themselves at the little table near the fireplace. The room was only lighted by the flickering glow of the fire, and the faint twilight fading in the narrow street without.

“Now, to put the matter straight before you, Mr. Pickshaw,” said the clown, “I must tell you, in the first place, that my own fortunes have undergone a change since Gervoise and I parted company. I’m happy to say I’m now pretty well off; and I’m prepared to adopt your little grandson. That’s number one. You’ve no objection to that, I suppose?”

“No, indeed, sir,” answered the old man eagerly; “I’m only glad the poor child has found a friend. I’m a struggling man myself, and I’ve more mouths about me than I can fill as it is.”

“Very well, then, number one’s a settled thing. Now for number two. I shall send the boy to a good school, and have him brought up as a gentleman, and I shall expect him to take his stand in life as a gentleman by and by. But, in order to do that, I must be able to prove his identity; I must be able to satisfy the world when the world asks questions about the boy. Do you follow me?”

“Not quite,” murmured Mr. Pickshaw; “I daresay I’m very stupid, but I don’t quite understand—”

“You don’t quite understand what I mean. I’ll make it plainer to you, then, my dear sir. I want you to give me any papers that you happen to have by you that may help to prove the boy’s identity by and by. The certificate of his mother’s marriage, for instance. I daresay now, as a prudent father, you’ve kept that yourself, eh?”

Herr von Volterchoker looked very anxiously at the old man, but Mr. Pickshaw shook his head with a hopeless expression of countenance.

“No, I didn’t,” he said; “I daresay it would have been wise of me to have kept the certificate, but I didn’t. I think Agatha had it herself. But if so, it must be in this house, for she left a desk with a lot of papers behind her. — Susan, do you know what became of that old desk of Agatha’s?”

“It is upstairs in my room, father,” the girl answered.

“Bring it down then, Susan,” said Mr. Pickshaw.— “If the certificate’s there, you shall have it. It’s no use to me. That marriage never brought me anything but unhappiness.”

“You don’t know anything of Gervoise Gilbert’s history before his marriage?”

“I only know that he came to my house as a lodger, and got deep in my debt; and then my eldest girl must needs fall in love with his handsome face. He was a gentleman by birth, he told us, and went under a false name because he didn’t want his father’s friends to know how low he’d fallen. Palgrave is his right name, and under that name he was married; but he was never called by it. He hadn’t a sixpence in the world except what he worked for, and was never likely to have. That’s all that I ever knew about his history.”

Herr von Volterchoker smiled as Mr. Pickshaw said this. These people were utterly ignorant of Gervoise Palgrave’s rank. They were poor struggling workers for daily bread, and were by no means likely to look into the Peerage, where they might have seen the names of the Palgraves, Earls of Haughton and Barons Davenant.

Susan Pickshaw reentered the room presently with a dilapidated mahogany desk in her arms. She set this down on the table, took a candle from the mantelpiece, lighted it, and placed it before her father.

The old man opened the desk, the lock of which had long ago been broken, and turned over a heap of tumbled letters and papers, flung together in utter disregard of order. He was very long searching and fumbling amongst these; so long that the clown lost patience, and begged to be allowed to assist him. Mr. Pickshaw made no objection to this, and in less than five minutes Herr von Volterchoker had succeeded in finding the document he wanted — the certificate of Gervoise Palgrave’s marriage with Agatha Pickshaw. The clown folded this, and put it in his pocket without waiting to ask permission.

“Now,” he said, “I want the registration papers of the boy’s birth and baptism.”

Mr. Pickshaw could not give his visitor either of these, but he directed him to the office where the child had been registered, and told him the name of the church where he had been christened.

“That’s about all I want,” said Herr von Volterchoker; “so now Georgey and I will be off. — Come, my lad.”

“Ain’t I to stay with grandpapa?”

“No, Georgey: you’re going back to Mrs. Beppo, and then you’re going to a school where you’ll learn to be a gentleman.”

“But you’ll let him come and see his poor old grandfather some day, won’t you, sir?” asked the old man.

“To be sure, Mr. Pickshaw, whenever you like to have him. I’ll drop you a line, by and by, and let you know what school I fix upon for him.”

“Thank you, sir; and if you should ever hear anything of my poor girl—”

“That’s not likely,” answered the clown. “Good-night. Is your daughter here like her sister?” he asked, as Susan Pickshaw took up the candle to light him downstairs.

“Very like her, sir; as like as two peas. Susan’s face is a little longer than Aggy’s, and her hair isn’t quite as dark; that’s about all the difference between them.”

Herr von Volterchoker took the boy straight back to the dingy little chandler’s shop, and delivered him over to the Irishwoman. Then he betook himself to a comfortable but not too reputable tavern in the purlieus of the Borough, where he ordered a rumpsteak and a pot of porter, and spent the rest of the evening reading the paper, and thinking of the business of the day. Early next morning he was up and stirring. He went to the registrar’s office in Westminster, as soon as it was open, and got a certified copy of the register of George Palgrave’s birth. He did the same with the register of the baptism, and then he went back to his old haunts to pick up a living in his old manner until Lord Haughton should return from his honeymoon tour, and Herr von Volterchoker’s plans should be ripe for execution.

Paris was especially gay in the early spring, when the newly-married couple took up their abode for a brief season at the Hôtel Bristol, and the Earl of Haughton found the aristocratic salons of the Faubourg Saint Germains, and the fairy mansions of the Champs Elysées, open to himself and his fair young bride. The earl and countess in short achieved what their Gallic admirers called un succès éclatant; yet often, amid the glittering crowd that filled some long suite of fairy chambers, opening one into another in a vista of light and beauty, Gervoise Palgrave’s thoughts wandered back to that dismal garret in a court near Seven Dials, that bare and cheerless den in which he had toiled for long hours before his easel with no higher aim or hope than — bread, to keep off starvation.

He remembered that hard bitter past, and he tried to be happy. Surely, if ever a man had reason to rejoice, it would seem to be this man, who had been lifted from the lowest abyss of social misery to hold his place amongst the privileged creatures of this earth; and yet there were times when the Earl of Haughton would have thanked God with wild passionate gratitude, if all this splendour and high fortune had proved only a long feverish dream.

Yes, there were brief intervals of despair in which Gervoise Palgrave cried aloud, “O God, that it were only a dream! If it were but a dream, how gladly would I awake to the old life, with all its sordid misery!”

Such gloomy thoughts as these haunted Lord Haughton by night and day: strange honeymoon fancies to fill the mind of a man who loved his wife — a man to whom all the glories of the world were fresh and new, with the gilding yet untarnished by custom.

What had he done that his life should be miserable to him? Gervoise Palgrave perpetually asked himself that question. What had he done? Was it his fault if Agatha’s life had been brought to a strange and sudden end? Was he to blame because the details of that wretched woman’s fate were shrouded in mystery?

Why, then, was he unhappy? He never voluntarily answered that question, even in his own secret thoughts. Yet it seemed as if in the dark recesses of his mind there was an answer to that awful question. He was miserable because he had committed a great crime; not a common crime, for which he might be called upon to make awful expiation on the scaffold; but a crime that was all the more terrible because another was liable to pay the penalty of this iniquity. He had suffered another man — suffered! why, he had tempted him! — to steep his soul in sin so that the tempter might have his selfish wish.

The memory of that night before the wedding at Pendon Church was for ever present to Gervoise Palgrave’s mind; he started from his sleep sometimes with a shrill hysterical cry, and the cold drops of agony upon his forehead. He tried to live in the present, but the past was more palpable to his mind than the events of the hour; and little by little he grew more and more absent in manner and gloomy of countenance, until at last the lively Parisians began to notice the young Englishman’s moody manners and melancholy looks. Then the worst horror of a guilty conscience began. Gervoise Palgrave knew that he was watched; he knew that curiosity was already aroused, and that the scorpion slander would soon lift its venomous head, rampant, unappeasable, to claim its wretched victim.

Ethel’s husband had to simulate a gaiety he did not feel. The simulation was miserably hollow, as all spurious things must be. But Ethel was too candid a creature to detect the sham smiles, the false unmusical laugh. If her husband smiled, she believed that he was happy; if he laughed, she thought that he was amused.

They had been southward to Nice and Florence, and they had returned to Paris to finish their honeymoon before going to settle at Palgrave Chase.

Palgrave Chase! The Earl of Haughton thought of this place as he might have thought of some black and gloomy mansion in which he had dreamed of wandering in some hideous nightmare vision. Palgrave Chase! the noble old pile of building, with the noise of falling water for ever echoing through the oak-panelled chambers.

It was scarcely strange that these haunting thoughts, these gloomy shadows, darkening all the joys of life, had a fatal effect upon Lord Haughton’s physical health. His strength ebbed away, as the days dragged themselves out so slowly, as it seemed to him, even in this gay French capital, whose citizens appear to have nothing to do but to amuse themselves. The olive tint of his handsome face faded to a waxen hue, over which, with every transient emotion, a vivid crimson flush glowed like low clouds that catch their colour from the sinking sun. These hectic flushes, and the strange brightness in the earl’s dark eyes, were diagnostics that no physician could have failed to interpret unfavourably. But Ethel mistook the crimson glow in her husband’s face for the warm hue of health, and the new brightness in his eyes seemed to her the light of happiness. It never entered into the young wife’s mind that these signs were nature’s danger-signals, and gave warning of a fatally insidious disease.

As for Gervoise himself, he never complained. If, sometimes, after a canter in the Bois de Boulogne, he felt his heart beating at a feverish rate, and the hot perspiration breaking out upon his face, he took little heed of these tokens of weakness. There might be nothing ominous in this decline of strength; if there were, it mattered little — it was perhaps the best thing that could happen to him.

The earl kept the secret of his own feelings, on this point and on every other, and he performed all the duties of his position with as much assiduity as if he had been the happiest and strongest man in Paris. He did everything that was required of him. He rode and drove with his wife in the Bois de Boulogne, in all the pretty suburban regions; he went shopping in the Rue de la Paix, and on the Boulevard des Italiens; he escorted Ethel in all her visits; he attended her at the Opera. He loved her, and he had a kind of pleasure in her happiness, though the burden on his mind was never less heavy to bear, though the haunting shadow of his life was never to be driven away.

 

Chapter 18
Ethel’s Visitor

It had been arranged that Lord Haughton and his wife should remain abroad until the beginning of June, when the apartments which were being newly decorated for the bride at the Chase would be ready; but before the end of May, Gervoise’s health gave way, very much to the alarm of his devoted wife.

An English physician was sent for, in compliance with Ethel’s urgent request, and remained for nearly an hour alone with the earl. He looked very grave when he came out of Lord Haughton’s room, but could tell Ethel nothing, except that her husband was suffering from extreme debility, and that he required perfect repose, both of body and mind.

“His mind has been lately much disturbed, I should imagine,” the physician said.

Ethel shook her head incredulously.

“What should disturb my dear husband’s mind?” she said. “He has every reason to be happy; unless, indeed, the shock of his cousin’s sudden death last year may have affected him.”

“I should think it very possible that Lord Haughton has been so affected,” the physician answered. “In any case, repose is most essential to him. His native air might be of service also in restoring his strength.”

Ethel knew that Gervoise Palgrave’s infancy had been spent in the neighbourhood of the Chase; she therefore did all in her power to hasten the return to Warwickshire, even against her husband’s will; for the earl had a nervous horror of that ivy-covered gothic mansion, perched high above the rushing waters that were for ever falling, falling, falling under the shadow of the steep bank.

The earl and countess arrived at the Chase upon a bright May evening; but, mild as the weather was, Gervoise had suffered considerably on the long journey from Paris to Warwickshire, though he had travelled express for the best part of the way. He was very silent and very pale when he handed his wife into the carriage that was in waiting at the station, and he sank back into a corner of the comfortable vehicle with a long-drawn sigh of relief.

Little pleasure had either wealth or love brought this man. He had been selfish all his life, and had sought his own happiness, and yet had utterly failed to win even the negative happiness called peace. He was fain to fall back now upon the physical selfishness of an invalid. The vitality of his mind seemed to have ebbed away with his bodily strength. He only wanted to lie down and rest, and to be let alone.

“Ethel,” he said, as the carriage entered the shrubberied drive leading to the great hall-door, “I think that the shadow will never be lifted from the dwellers in yonder house. I have heard it said that no Palgrave has ever known happiness since Rupert Palgrave, the Hanoverian, betrayed his Jacobite brother more than a hundred years ago.”

Lights were burning in all the principal apartments of the old mansion. Lord Haughton and his wife dined in that very room in which the earl had spent the eve of his wedding-day.

Little happiness awaited the young wife in her splendid home. Gervoise grew rapidly worse after his return to the Chase, and Ethel was tortured by perpetual fears, which she tried in vain to persuade herself were needless and unreasonable. Upon the very morning after his return, the earl was too ill to rise, and at his wife’s earnest entreaty allowed her to send a telegraphic summons to a distinguished physician at Birmingham. At noon this gentleman was with Lord Haughton, and during the interview Ethel wandered about the house, looking very sadly at the old pictures, the faded tapestries, the quaint carvings — looking at them in a strange absent way, and scarcely seeing them.

“I thought that Gervoise would have shown me all these things,” she said to herself mournfully; “my new home seems almost as desolate as if I had come back to it alone.”

There were three drawing-rooms at the Chase, opening one into the other. Ethel seated herself in the smallest of the three, the innermost chamber; a pretty little room, with white panels and gold mouldings, and with an old-fashioned border of painted flowers running all round the cornice. There was a bay window overlooking the gardens, and an old-fashioned high chimneypiece, exquisitely carved, and painted white, like the rest of the woodwork.

There was a fire in this room, for the day was dull, cold, and unseasonable. Ethel seated herself in the bay-window, and looked out at the sloping shrubberies and the stretching meadows beyond the ivy-grown park-fence that shut in the gardens of Palgrave Chase. She was in no humour for any of her familiar occupations, though this room had been specially prepared for her use, and though her piano and books and drawing-materials had been brought from Hyford, and arranged in this apartment by the careful hands of her own maid.

For more than half an hour the countess sat in the old-fashioned window-seat looking listlessly out at the dull gray sky and the dark fir-trees in the shrubbery, with the tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. She was so occupied by her own sad thoughts, that she did not hear the footsteps of one of the servants coming through the adjoining room, and was only roused from her reverie when the man was close to her.

Ethel started to her feet, and hastily brushed the tears from her eyes. The man handed her a card upon a salver.

“The gentleman begs to see your ladyship upon most particular business,” the servant said.

The gentleman was Mr. Vokes, otherwise Volterchoker.

Ethel looked wonderingly at the card.

“I do not know anyone of this name,” she said.

“The gentleman said he was a stranger to your ladyship; but he made sure your ladyship would see him, if you would be so kind as to read what’s written on the back of the card.”

Ethel turned Mr. Vokes’s card. On the back there were a few words scrawled in pencil.

Will Lady Haughton be good enough to see Mr. V. on business of vital importance to Lord H.?”

“Important to my husband!” cried Ethel. “What can he mean? — Let him come to me immediately.”

The servant went in quest of Mr. Vokes. Ethel walked up and down the room, impatiently awaiting the coming of her strange visitor.

Mr. Vokes, alias Herr von Volterchoker, had endeavoured to adapt his appearance to the occasion, and was no longer the disreputable-looking tramp and tumbler who had handed round his greasy hat for halfpence in the market-place of Avondale. He wore a suit of black, and had almost a clerical look. His manner was courteous and sympathetic, almost oily in its extreme politeness and consideration.

Ethel motioned him to a chair with a gesture which had some shade of hauteur in its careless grace. The Countess of Haughton was an impulsive young lady, who had her likings and dislikings, and she was not very favourably impressed by the stranger.

“You have something to say that concerns my husband,” she said. “I am ready to hear anything that interests him.” Mr. Vokes hesitated, and turned the brim of his hat slowly round and round in his bony hands.

“The business upon which I come is not a very pleasant one,” he said; “but I feel that I have a duty to perform — a duty towards society and your ladyship.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Ethel asked haughtily. “I do not understand this preface.”

“You will understand the preface better when you know the story, Lady Haughton,” answered Mr. Vokes, with a sardonic grin upon his face; “but before I go any further, let me ask you one question. When the Earl of Haughton asked you to be his wife did he tell you that he was a widower?”

“No,” cried Ethel. “What do you mean by such a question? Lord Haughton was not a widower.”

“No, my lady,” returned the clown, with insolent significance; “you’re right enough there. When Gervoise Palgrave asked you to marry him he was not a widower, for his first wife was alive.”

Ethel started to her feet in sudden anger.

“What!” she cried, you would dare to insinuate that I—”

“No, no; I don’t insinuate anything about you,” the man answered. “Don’t be frightened, my lady. You are Gervoise Palgrave’s lawfully wedded wife; for his first wife was treacherously murdered upon the night before your wedding-day.” Some women would have fallen senseless and lifeless to the ground, smitten by these words as by a thunderbolt. But Ethel’s was no common schoolgirl nature. She stood erect, motionless as a statue, with her eyes fixed upon the grinning wretch who sat opposite to her.

“It is a lie!” she cried; “an infamous and wicked lie! A base plot against my happiness and my husband’s honour. I will never believe it.”

 

Chapter 19
A Friend In Need

Ten minutes after Mr. Vokes had been admitted to the presence of the countess, another visitor arrived at Palgrave Chase. This second visitor was Stephen Hurst, who had heard of the arrival of the earl and countess, and had come immediately to call upon his cousin — the cousin he had loved so truly and so hopelessly.

Had loved! — alas, he loved her still. Vainly had he striven to banish her dear image from his heart. He still loved Ethel, as truly and faithfully as he had loved her in those happy, never-to-be-forgotten days when they had wandered together in the woods about Hyford Hall in the long vacation. Of course he indulged in the sophistries common to men in his position; for he was a conscientious man, who tried to do his duty unflinchingly. He flattered himself that his present feelings for Ethel were very different from those of the past. He had ceased to love her: he thought he felt for her now only a tender friendship, an eager desire to serve her, if ever she had need of his aid.

Under these circumstances he considered himself justified in making a very early call at Palgrave Chase.

The servant who admitted Mr. Hurst was the same man who had, five or ten minutes previously, conducted Mr. Vokes to the countess’s apartment. He told Stephen that Lady Haughton was at that moment engaged with a person who had called upon particular business.

The young man would have gone away after hearing this, if he had not happened to encounter Lucy Trotter — Ethel’s maid — a young woman who had been seven years at the Hall, and whom her kind young mistress treated rather as a humble friend than as a servant. This young person was passing across an inner hall — on her way from one part of the house to another — and heard Stephen Hurst’s voice as he spoke to the servant. She made her appearance immediately, and seemed delighted to see her old friend.

“Lor’, Mr. Stephen,” she said, “don’t go away because our young miss — I meanter say, her ladyship the countess — but the old way of talking do come so natural like — don’t you go and run away because her ladyship’s got someone with her in the drawing-room. He’s nobody. I sor him go upstairs; and he’s one of those shabby black, respectable kind of persons that looks something betwixt and between an hotel-waiter and a methody minister. He’s only come for a subscription to a dancing-school for destitute chimley-sweeps, or some such rubbish, I dessay. Never mind him, Mr. Stephen; you go up and see Miss Ethel — there I go again! — but, sir, you know it does — now, don’t it? You go up and see her: she’ll be glad enough to see you; and that’ll be an excuse for gettin’ rid of the minister.”

“But, Lucy, I really can’t intrude upon—”

“Intrude upon fiddlesticks!” cried Lucy. “That’s just like you, Mr. Stephen. As if you don’t know my lady will be glad to see you! I am sure I shall be very glad for you to see her, for she’s in very low spirits, poor dear, because of the earl’s health being bad, which I never see anyone lookin’ worse than he does, certainly, poor gentleman; and Miss Ethel don’t see the change in him as I do, through not having seen him since the weddin’-day. Now, you go upstairs, Mr. Stephen, and don’t be nonsensical. The idea of such ceremony between first cousins!”

Stephen went half unwillingly and unannounced to the drawing-rooms which had been familiar to him in the last Lord Haughton’s lifetime. He went into the first room and shut the door behind him, and went into the centre and larger apartment. But here he was arrested suddenly by a sound that came from the inner room — the sound of a woman’s passionate sobbing, while a man’s hard voice went on, relentless as the voice of fate.

“Upon the afternoon of the last day of February,” said this voice, “you and Gervoise Palgrave were riding together through the town of Avondale. You were riding past a little tavern where the market-people assemble, when a woman ran out, tried to seize the bridle of your lover’s horse, and called him a villain and a scoundrel. The Earl of Haughton took this very lightly: the wretched woman was mad or drunk, he said — it was altogether a most absurd business. But yet I doubt if my Lord Haughton was quite in his usual spirits for the rest of that day.”

The cruel voice paused, and Stephen Hurst heard the woman’s sobs grow louder. He listened — it was base and mean, perhaps, to listen, but if it were so, Stephen was unconscious of either baseness or meanness; he only felt that the most vital interests of the woman he loved were affected by the words to which he listened, and that it was his business to protect and defend her.

“The wretched woman was carried to some humble shelter in the Avondale inn. They put her in a stable, I think, or a loft, or some place of that description. It was good enough for her, for she was only a miserable tramp, who, in her mad drunkenness, had been so audacious as to attack the master of Palgrave Chase. She was put in a loft over a stable, and when she was sought for on the following morning, she was nowhere to be found. Pardon me — she was to be found, but not in the neighbourhood of the inn. She was found drowned in the river Avon, and her dead body was carried through Pendon churchyard five minutes before your wedding with the man who had been her husband. O yes, Lady Haughton, I told you only the truth when I said that your marriage was in perfect accordance with the law of the land. Your husband was a widower when you married him; his first wife had been dead half-a-dozen hours.”

“I do not believe it,” cried Ethel’s voice, broken by sobs. “I do not know what motive you may have in bringing me this story; but nothing short of my husband’s own confession would make me believe that he had deceived me.”

“You are very incredulous, Lady Haughton. Why not go to Gervoise Palgrave, tell him what I have told you, and if my assertions are false, let him disprove them?”

Ethel was silent for a few moments, and again Stephen heard her low hysterical sobs.

“My husband is ill,” she said; “I cannot disturb him.”

“You fear to go to him, Lady Haughton,” answered Mr. Vokes; “you fear. You know I have told you the truth. I will tell you even more: that wretched woman, your husband’s first wife, was lured away from Avondale, and treacherously murdered by Gervoise Palgrave, the man you love. I have proof of your husband’s guilt, and I shall know how to make good use of it. Look back, Lady Haughton — look back, and remember all that has passed between you and your husband, and ask yourself if every circumstance in the past does not point to one conclusion. Your husband is ill, you say? Shall I tell you why he is ill? shall I tell you the nature of his disease? He is sinking under the burden of a guilty conscience. It is remorse which is sapping at the very roots of his life. Judge for yourself whether it is any common disorder which has stricken him down.”

For some moments there was silence. Then, in a voice that was subdued and yet resolute, Ethel asked:

“Why do you come to me with this story?”

“Because you are the person most interested in Lord Haughton’s welfare, and it is with you I must come to an understanding as to whether I am to keep this matter secret, or do my duty, and see Gervoise Palgrave’s dead wife avenged.”

“No, sir,” answered Stephen Hurst, crossing the threshold of the inner room as he spoke, “it is not with Lady Haughton, but with me, that you must come to an understanding.”

At the sudden aspect of this young man, who entered the room with his head erect, and his eyes flashing with indignant fire, the valiant Herr von Volterchoker faltered a little; but he recovered himself quickly enough, and it was in a tone of supreme insolence that he said:

“You have listeners, then, hanging about your rooms, it seems, Lady Haughton?”

“No, sir,” answered Stephen; but on this occasion Lady Haughton happened to have her friend and kinsman near at hand when she had most need of his service.”

Herr von Volterchoker seemed rather discomposed by this speech.

Ethel tottered forward a few paces, and flung herself on the ground at her cousin’s feet.

“This is not true,” she cried, “this cannot be true. O Stephen, speak to me, for pity’s sake; give me some comfort, for this man has almost driven me mad — say that it is not true.”

“I do not believe that he has spoken the whole truth, Ethel,” Stephen replied, raising the distracted girl from the ground. He may have spoken some of the truth, perhaps; and a little truth eked out by a good deal of falsehood makes the terrible machinery by which many a man has paid the penalty of crimes he never committed. Sit down, Ethel; sit down, and calm yourself. Let me talk to this man.”

“This man has a name as well as other men,” observed Mr. Vokes insolently, “and you may as well call him by it while you’re about it. My name’s Vokes, at your service — William Vokes.”

He flung himself upon a low couch near the window as he spoke, and stretched out his long legs; but he was by no means as much at home as he had been before Stephen’s appearance, though he tried to carry off his lurking uneasiness by a little extra swagger.

“Why have you come here with this story about Lord Haughton?” Stephen asked, in a calm business-like tone. “If you’re an honest man, and want to use your information in the interests of society, why don’t you go straight to the nearest magistate and tell him what you suspect?”

“O Stephen,” cried Ethel, “is this the way you help me?” But the young rector took no notice of this interruption. He never removed his eyes from Herr von Volterchoker’s face.

“If you’re an honest man, take your suspicions to the proper quarter,” he said; “don’t bring them here.”

“But suppose I’m not an honest man,” returned Mr. Vokes, folding his arms and confronting Stephen with an air of spurious confidence. “Suppose I’m not an honest man — at any rate, no more honest than the generality of my species. Suppose I want to turn my information to good account, for my own benefit, and not for the advantage of society at large. How if, having found this secret, I’m prepared to sell it in the best market? How then?”

“Then you are a scoundrel,” answered Stephen, “and we must deal with you as a scoundrel.”

“Very probably. But it sometimes happens that a scoundrel picks up a big diamond, and the precious stone’s worth just as much as if it had been picked up by the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“But how if the pretended diamond is only a bit of glass, Mr. Vokes? How if your secret is no secret, but merely a concoction of your own lively brain?”

“I can prove one part of it in half a second,” answered Mr. Vokes; “I can prove that Gervoise Palgrave was married before he married his present wife, for I have the certificate of his first marriage in my pocket.”

He took out his pocket-book as he spoke, selected the certificate from several other papers, walked to where Stephen Hurst was seated, and held the document open before him while he read it.

“This paper certifies the marriage of Gervoise Palgrave with one Agatha Pickshaw,” said Stephen very coolly; “but how do I know that the Gervoise Palgrave here named was Gervoise Palgrave, Lord Haughton?”

There was rather an awkward pause after this. Ethel watched the two men breathlessly, with a terrible interest in every word that was spoken.

“O, as for that,” exclaimed Herr von Volterchoker, “that’s easy enough to prove.”

“Possibly; but it remains to be proved. People are not found guilty of murder upon very slight evidence nowadays, and the evidence you have to bring against Lord Haughton isn’t strong enough to hang a dog.”

Mr. Vokes put the certificate in his pocket. He sat down again, and amused himself by gnawing his finger-nails furiously, like a savage cur mumbling a stolen bone. It had been easy enough to frighten a loving woman, who was ready to take alarm at the first whisper of danger to the man she loved; but it was a very different matter to confront this self-possessed young parson, who seemed to have all his wits about him.

“Perhaps I had better try to dispose of my information elsewhere,” the clown said presently.

He was white with suppressed rage, and he trembled as he spoke.

“I really think you had,” Stephen replied, with consummate politeness; “your information has had no effect here but to occasion causeless alarm in Lady Haughton’s mind.”

“Very well, sir,” answered the clown, with a savage sneer; “I make no doubt I shall find a market for my secret. I told Lady Haughton that I possessed the proof of her husband’s guilt; she will know that I have spoken the truth — when it is too late.”

He put on his hat and went towards the door.

“Stephen,” cried Ethel passionately, “you will never surely let this man go?”

“If his secret is worth buying, I will pay him for it,” Stephen said quietly. “I don’t believe that it is; but if I am hasty in coming to that conclusion, let Mr. Vokes meet me at my lawyer’s office to-morrow at two o’clock. I shall be ready to hear anything he may have to say.”

“I shall not condescend to enter into any negotiation with you, sir,” answered Mr. Vokes. “When next I discuss this business it will be with the Earl of Haughton himself.”

Upon this the clown stalked away, followed by Stephen, who saw Mr. Vokes to the staircase, and committed him to the care of one of the lounging footmen always to be found in the neighbourhood of the hall.

The young man then went back to Ethel. She was standing near the window, pale, but very calm. She had wiped the tears from her swollen eyelids, but the expression of her face was more piteous than if it had been drowned in tears.

“Stephen,” she said imploringly, “since you have heard what this man has said, I can only look to you for help. I know that it is not true — it cannot be true; but I look to you to protect my husband from this man. There may be some secret — some cloud upon his past life; and if it is so, I am ready to bear my part of the burden. I love him so dearly, that if there is suffering to be endured, I would bear it willingly for his sake. I would bear it gladly, if by so doing I could save him one pang.”

Stephen turned to the window and looked out at the sloping shrubberies as Ethel said this. How vainly he had yearned for this girl’s love, and the supreme blessing had been withheld from him to be given so freely to Gervoise Palgrave, the handsome stranger, the chance acquaintance of a few weeks! Even to his Christian patience it seemed a hard thing; but he had promised to be her faithful and constant friend, and he was prepared to perform his promise unflinchingly.

“The man who has just gone away from this house is a scoundrel and a swindler, Ethel,” he said presently. “I watched his face just now, while I was talking to him. He has no fatal secret to dispose of. I saw the coward under the mask of the braggart: there is nothing to be feared from him.

But there may be some half-truth in what he has said. The certificate of marriage which he showed me may actually relate to some early marriage of your husband.”

“But why should Gervoise conceal that marriage from me?”

“The union may have been unhappy, or so humble a marriage that Lord Haughton was too proud to speak of it.”

“I cannot think that,” Ethel said mournfully. “I cannot think that Gervoise would disavow his wife.”

Stephen was silent. He remembered the period before Ethel’s marriage, and he remembered how Lord Haughton had for a considerable time refrained from any declaration of his love, after that affection had become an obvious fact to every observer. Did not this in some manner bear out the stranger’s assertion that Gervoise Palgrave’s first wife had only died within a very short time of his marriage with Ethel? Stephen was too generous to reveal such thoughts as these to the unhappy wife, who so early needed his consolation and support.

“Do not let this man’s slanders disturb you, Ethel,” he said. “It will be for me to sift this business quietly, without prejudice to Lord Haughton’s interests. In the mean time I beg you to banish the affair from your mind.”

“I will try to do so, for my husband’s sake.”

“He is very ill, then?”

“Yes, very ill. He was ill when he left Paris, and he seems much worse this morning. I never thought I should have so sad a welcome to Palgrave Chase. I look to you for help, Stephen. You promised to be my friend, and I bitterly need your friendship. I must say good-bye now, for I must go and see if Gervoise wants me. Will you stay and dine with us, Stephen?”

Mr. Hurst declined this invitation.

“I shall be of more use to you elsewhere, Ethel,” he said. “I want to think this matter over very quietly before I decide how I shall act in your behalf.”

He took Lady Haughton’s cold hand in his own, and pressed it tenderly.

“God bless you, Ethel!” he said. “If unselfish wishes could help you, you would not long be unhappy.”

He went back to his pretty parsonage at Pendon, and shut himself in the little room which he made his study. He made a pencil memorandum of the particulars of the marriage certificate, and jotted down the name of the bride, Agatha Pickshaw, and the name of the church at which the marriage had taken place. The church was Saint Margaret’s, Westminster.

“My first step must be to find out if the Gervoise Palgrave mentioned in this document is Gervoise Palgrave, Lord Haughton,” thought the young man; “and my next step shall be to inquire into the character of Gervoise Palgrave’s accuser.”

 

Chapter 20
Humphrey’s Confession

Ethel went straight to her husband’s room after Stephen Hurst had left her. Gervoise had risen now, and was sitting near the fire in his study, pale and haggard-looking, wrapped in a long dark velvet dressing-gown, and with his unkempt hair falling in disorder upon his forehead. He looked up as his wife entered the room, and held out his hand to her.

“I thought you were out, my darling,” he said.

No, Gervoise, I have been home a long time; but—”

“You have had visitors, I suppose?”

“Yes,” Ethel answered, hesitating a little; “Stephen Horst has been with me.”

That’s strange.”

“Why strange, dear Gervoise?”

“Because I have just sent one of the grooms to fetch his father, and Mr. Warboys.”

“To fetch Mr. Warboys the lawyer!” cried Laura; “what do you want with him, Gervoise?”

Lord Haughton sighed.

“If I were to tell you, my pet, you would be unhappy,” he said. “You are too good for me, Ethel, too bright and beautiful. Happiness has very rarely reigned at Palgrave Chase, my darling, and when she enters her reign is never long. I think the house is doomed, Ethel, and all who dwell in it.”

Gervoise — Gervoise!”

The frightened girl fell on her knees by her husband’s side. Doubt and fear took possession of her. She saw some vague confirmation of the stranger’s fearful accusations in her husband’s manner, and she trembled from head to foot as she knelt by his side.

“O Gervoise,” she cried piteously, “it can’t be true — it can’t be true! Tell me that it is not true!”

Lord Haughton turned his haggard eyes upon his wife’s face.

“What do you mean, Ethel?”

She did not answer him at first, but she still knelt at his feet, looking up at his white, careworn face. She looked at him and saw something more than physical weakness or physical pain in those wan and altered lineaments. She pitied him with all her woman’s heart, with all the force of her pure and noble soul, and yet something within her, stronger than her own will, seemed to urge her on to sound the depths of those secret thoughts that had been so carefully hidden from her.

“Gervoise,” she said in a low voice, and then she went on speaking very slowly, and with her innocent eyes fixed upon her husband’s face as she spoke, “Gervoise, I had a dreadful dream last night, and the remembrance of it haunts me to-day. I dreamt that a man came to me, a man whose face I had never seen before, and spoke to me of you. O Gervoise, he told me that there was a blight upon our wedding morning, and that the shadow of death came between us and divided us when we should have been happiest and most united. He told me this, and then he led me out from this house into the dark night, and led me on until we came to a stream of black, troubled water, and on the flat shore beside that troubled river there lay the body of a woman, drowned, Gervoise — drowned, poor wretched creature. The moon had been hidden by the clouds until that moment, but in that moment the clouds swept away, and I saw the woman’s face. Shall I tell you whose face it was, Gervoise? It was the face of the woman who stopped your horse in Avondale market-place on the day before our wedding.”

Gervoise Palgrave groaned aloud, and hid his face upon his wife’s breast. Her arms crept round him, and held him there; not perhaps with their old impulsive love and confidence, but with the sheltering tenderness of a mother who clings to the child she loves — the child from whom no guilt, however black or horrible, can alienate her unreasoning affection.

“It is all true, then,” the wretched wife murmured to herself, in a low, broken voice, while her husband’s face was hidden upon her shoulder, “it is all true; and there is nothing left for me upon this earth except to comfort and pity him.” Her husband’s head grew heavier and heavier as it lay upon her shoulder.

She tried to lift it, and could not; and then, in a sudden panic, screamed aloud for help.

Lord Haughton’s valet came rushing in at the sound of that terrified voice.

“O, look at him, help him!” Ethel cried; “his face is as white as death. He is dying!”

But the servant reassured her. His lordship had only fainted, the man said. He brought cold water and hartshorn. Gervoise Palgrave’s eyes opened presently, and he stared about him with a faint convulsive shudder. The valet led his master into the adjoining room and persuaded him to lie down.

Ethel stood near the fireplace in the study, staring blankly at the burning coals. It seemed to her as if the powers of her mind were paralysed. She could not realise the full horror of her position. She knew that it was horrible, and that was all. She knew that her husband was guilty, since he had tacitly confessed his guilt. She knew that he was guilty, and that she loved him in spite of his guilt.

She went into the adjoining room presently and would have seated herself beside the bed upon which Gervoise was lying; but the valet whispered to her that Dr. Wilmington, the Birmingham physician, had specially ordered rest and quiet for his patient. He was to be kept alone, and was to sleep as much as possible. The recovery of his physical strength entirely hinged upon the perfect repose of his mind.

Ethel bowed her head submissively and went away to the pretty dressing-room, in which modern elegance was blended exquisitely with the quaint grandeur of the past — the room which had been prepared for a happy wife, and in which a miserable woman flung herself upon her knees, and wept aloud for her guilty husband.

She wept and prayed for him; she tried to think of the nature of his guilt, but she could not. Her love came between his image and the crime which she believed him to have committed, and she could not realise the extent of his wickedness. She remained for hours half kneeling, half lying beside a prie-dieu chair in her dressing-room. The tears poured in torrents at first, and then dried and left her eyes bloodshot and haggard. Sometimes her lips moved in passionate prayer and supplication for the guilty creature to whom her heart so obstinately clung; at other times she sank into a kind of stupor, in which she had only a vagué sense of some overwhelming grief which had suddenly darkened her life.

She remained thus until the low western sunlight glowed redly upon her window, and flecked the oaken wainscot with crimson brightness. Then she rose half mechanically, and drew a shawl round her, for the fire had burnt itself out, and she was cold and shivering.

The broad window of her dressing-room was ajar, and beyond the window there was an iron balcony, and a light iron stair leading down into the flower-garden, below which the waterfall rushed over the mossy crags and boulders. With her shawl wrapped closely round her, Ethel went slowly down the iron steps, and across the smooth turf, winding in and out amongst the beds of bright flowers, until she came to the steps in the side of the river-bank — the rugged steps down which Gervoise Palgrave’s first wife had gone to her death, on the bleak, starless eve of Ethel’s wedding-day.

The young countess little knew whose footsteps had trodden the pathway she was now following. She went down the rugged mossy steps, and across a little rustic wooden bridge that spanned the waterfall. She went mechanically, scarcely knowing whither she went, wandering anywhere in the agonised restlessness of her grief.

The gray twilight was creeping over the sky, and the low streaks of vivid crimson in the west grew lurid in the gathering darkness, and glinted upon the black trunks of the trees like splashes of wet blood; so, at least, it seemed to Ethel, to whose tortured mind all common things assumed strange, distorted images.

She wandered on under the fir-trees, whose dark foliage loomed against the fading sunlight like the black plumes in a funeral procession. The wind had risen with the going down of the sun, and the upper branches of the firs tossed to and fro against the low yellow light.

Ethel shuddered at the image suggested by those waving branches — she shuddered as she thought that perhaps the greatest mercy pitying Heaven could grant to the sinful lord of Palgrave Chase was an early death, which would release him from the dread burden of his guilty shame.

Her mind was filled with these gloomy thoughts as she wound her way, with a slow, mechanical step, amongst the pine-trees, through an atmosphere that was odorous with their faint incense-like perfume. She walked on, wrapped in her own despair, like some sleepwalker who wanders blindly hither and thither in a painful dream, until she found herself close to the lighted casement of the lodge that was kept by Margery Melwood and her son.

No mention of this man’s name had dropped from the false lips of Gervoise Palgrave’s accuser. Herr von Volterchoker knew the secret of the poor man’s guilt; but that secret was useless to him, save so far as he could use it against the rich man.

Ethel knew nothing of Humphrey Melwood, except that he was a handsome, gipsy-faced young man, who was ready to go through fire and water in the service of his foster-brother.

This was enough to render the loving young wife well disposed to the reformed poacher.

There was no garden before the lodge; the casement window looked out upon a narrow plot of grass that skirted the drive, and widened into a little shrubbery on one side of the gates. One half of the diamond-paned casement was open this evening as Ethel approached the lodge, for the wind that tossed the fir-trees was a southern wind, and the evening was warm.

The light within the cottage was the light of a fire, and before that fire there were two figures — two figures that flung great black shadows upon the low ceiling and the whitewashed wall, and seemed to fill the little room with their presence. One of these figures was an old woman, sitting in an armchair, close to the fire; the other was a man — a man with a brown face, glittering black eyes, and tumbled raven hair — a man who was half-lying, half-sitting on the ground, with his face turned towards the fire, and his head resting on the woman’s knee.

Some instinct, something stronger than her own weak will, led Ethel to this open window. It may have been that a shuddering horror of the loneliness around, the black fir-grove and the darkening sky, had taken possession of her. She went up to the window with slow, weary steps, that were noiseless upon the soft turf; she went up to the window with the intention of speaking to Margery Melwood and her son.

The young wife, the beautiful heiress of the great ironmaster’s wealth, the happy child, whose girlhood had been one bright holiday, yearned now for the sound of a human voice to break the dreadful silence of her despair.

She was close beside the little window when she was startled by the sound of her husband’s name. She paused only in the first impulse of surprise, but in that pause, brief though it was, she heard that which rooted her to the spot, as if she had been held there by a hand of iron.

Humphrey Melwood was speaking. He was speaking to his mother, but he was not looking at her. His gaze was fixed upon the red coals before him, and Ethel saw the firelight reflected in the black depths of his gleaming eyes. The young man’s head still leaned against his mother’s knee: it leaned there, but it did not rest, for every now and then, as Humphrey spoke, he rolled his head from side to side like a wretched, fever-stricken creature who tosses to and fro upon his sleepless pillow. The old woman’s face was bent over her son, and thus completely hidden from Ethel; but from the convulsive movement of her shoulders the watcher knew that Humphrey’s mother was sobbing.

“Yes, mother,” the young man said, “it was for his sake — for my little foster-brother, Gervoise; for my first friend, Master Gervoise; for my master, the new Earl of Haughton, — it was for him I did it.”

These were the words that rooted Ethel to the spot on which she stood. She was standing behind the window, close to the wall of the house, and she could hear every word that was spoken within.

“I’ve kept my secret, mother, and I must keep it to the end. There’s only one man who knows it, and he must have the devil himself for a friend, or else he couldn’t have found it out. That man who came here one night directly after my lord’s wedding — he knows it; and if he speaks and tells what he knows, they’ll hang me, I suppose. It would be almost a charity to do it, for at least that would put me out of my misery.”

“Why did you do it, Humphrey?” cried the old woman in a stifled voice. “O, why, why did you do this dreadful deed?”

“Why, mother? Because his happiness depended upon it; because I saw his misery, and the sight of it made me mad. He sent me that night — the night before his marriage — he sent me to fetch the woman at the King’s Head. She was in a loft over the stables asleep, the ostler told me. He showed me to the place, and I went up the steps and found her in the loft. She was lying in a drunken sleep, dressed in her walking clothes, all but her bonnet, which was lying on the ground near her. It wasn’t easy to wake her; but I did wake her at last, and I told her what Master Gervoise had ordered me to tell her. I told her that her husband wanted her.”

He stopped, and pushed his hair away from his forehead, and stared at the fire in a gloomy silence. Then he went on again in a slow, dreamy way, as if he had been talking to himself rather than to the wretched mother who was listening to him in an agony of grief.

“I suppose the gipsy blood that’s in me makes me different from other folks. I come of a people that don’t set much value upon their own lives or the lives of their neighbours. This woman stood in my master’s way. That thought was in my mind as I went alone to fetch her; that thought was more than ever in my mind while I was walking back to the Chase, with her by my side. She seemed a sulky kind of woman, and I fancied she was stupefied by the drink she’d taken. This was all I knew of her; but I hated her, for she stood between my master and his hopes of happiness. I took her to the house, and Master Gervoise let us in at the little door close to his own rooms. We went in with him, and he took his wife into the little inner room that’s full of books and such-like, and he left me in the other room, where he had been dining, and where the table was spread with wine and glasses. Master Gervoise had told me to drink some wine, and I sat down by the fire and filled a glass from the decanter that was nearest me. I don’t know what the wine was, but I know that it seemed very good. I went on drinking it till the bottle was empty, and my brain was all on fire when Master Gervoise came in presently alone.”

He stopped again, and moved his head again, and then went on as he had done before, without once looking up at his mother. The night-wind sweeping past the lodge fluttered Ethel’s dress and shawl, but those within the cottage were too much wrapped in their own thoughts to take heed of the sounds without. So long as the gates remained locked, Margery Melwood fancied herself safe from any eavesdropper. It was not likely that anyone from the house would be prowling about the grounds on that dark cheerless night.

“Master Gervoise came in to me,” said Humphrey, “and I saw at once, from his face, that all was wrong. He told me that his wife refused to go away; and he told me with the same breath that no power on earth should hinder him from keeping his engagement with Miss Hurst. There was a good deal more said; but it all came to that, first and last. The woman refused to leave England, and Gervoise swore that he would be the husband of the girl he loved. It was then that the black thought grew up in my mind; it was then that I resolved to save my master from misery and disgrace.”

“But he asked you?” cried Margery Melwood; “he tempted you to do it?”

“By no word, mother; by neither word nor look. He did not tempt me; it was my own love for him that tempted me. But he knew what I was going to do.”

“He knew it?”

“Yes, mother, as well as I knew the thought that was in my own mind. He knew what I meant to do, and he never bade me hold my hand. Heaven help him, and Heaven pity me! I think we were both mad that night, mother. Do you know what dreams are — those dreadful dreams in which one gropes about in the dark upon the edge of a horrible precipice, pushed on against one’s own will by a man whose face is hidden? That night seemed to me like one of those dreams. I knew what my master wanted: he wanted to get rid of that woman somehow or other; and I knew that he had only me to help him. I told him that I would get her away, safely out of the way, and that all should be right. He knew what I meant, mother. I saw it in his face; I heard it in his voice when he spoke to the woman.”

There was a pause; and in the silence Ethel heard the southern wind sighing amongst the fir-trees, the dropping of the ashes on the hearth, and Margery Melwood’s voice moaning faintly, “O my son, my son — my wretched, guilty son!”

“I was to take the woman back to Avondale. That was what my master said to her. He would send for her, or go himself to fetch her — I forget which he said — the following morning. To me that to-morrow morning seemed as far off as the end of the world. Master Gervoise said something to me about money. I should want money, he said, to get the woman out of the way — making believe to think there’d be the expenses of her journey, and such-like; but I knew by his shaking voice that he was telling a lie. He let us out at the little door by which he had admitted us a couple of hours before; and we went across the flower-garden, and down the steps in the cliff, the woman clinging to me as she felt her way upon the slippery stairs. I held her arm as we went along by the side of the water. She pleaded very hard to go the other way, by the high-road; she was afraid of that narrow path by the water. She pleaded very hard. O my God, I can hear her voice in my ears at this moment; I have heard it always — ever since that night! And yet I live, mother — I live, I live!”

The young man stopped, and for the first time since Ethel had begun to watch him he covered his face with his brawny hands, and gave way to a paroxysm of grief. He went on at last, but in a broken voice, and with a wild terror in his great black eyes:

“I took her down by the lonely pathway, mother; but I couldn’t do it at first. I hadn’t the heart to do it, though I fancied there were voices in the rushing of the water that kept crying to me that I was a coward, and that it ought to be done at once. I led her along the river-bank, not towards Avondale, but the other way, across the meadows betwixt this place and Pendon churchyard. Poor creature! she was a stranger, and she fancied I was leading her right until we got very far towards Pendon, and then she cried out that I was taking her the wrong way, that I was leading her into some lonely place where she would lose herself. I turned back when she said this, and we went towards the Chase again; but still I hadn’t the heart to do what it was in my mind to do. So presently I asked her if she would go abroad, over the sea to America, or somewhere. I asked her if any sum of money would tempt her to do this; but she answered me in an obstinate, sulky way, and told me that nothing on earth would tempt her to leave Avondale unless her husband went with her. ‘He has deserted me once,’ she said, in the same determined way, ‘and he shall never abandon me again while I live!’ I told her that she was a very foolish woman, and that if she cared for her own safety, for the safety of her life, she had best give way, and do what she was asked to do. God help me, mother! When I said this I wanted to give her a chance; I wanted to save her. I think I would have given my own life if I could have served my foster-brother without doing the wicked deed that was in my mind. If she had been a man, and had provoked me, and we had fallen upon one another, each of us with a knife in his hand, I would have held the sin of bloodshed light enough; but she was a woman, and we were alone together in the darkness, she clinging to me as we groped along the slippery path, and there was not a creature near to help her. I gave her that one chance. I told her if she cared for the safety of her life she would do well to give way, and not provoke Gervoise Palgrave; but she told me that her life was of little value to her, for she was a miserable wretch, and that her chief motive for living was the hope of being revenged on the man who had deserted her. Three times I gave her the same warning; three times she answered me in the same words and in the same tone; till at last she provoked me, and I put my hands upon her shoulders and held her rooted to the slippery ground, close upon the edge of the water. ‘I am going to kill you!’ I said; you are as obstinate as death; but you shall never stand in the way of my master’s happiness.’ She gave a long, horrible scream, and clutched with her thin fingers at the scarf that was tied round my neck. I feel her fingers dragging at me now, mother — it is very seldom that I do not feel them — and their frozen touch creeps to my very heart, and seems to stop its beating. I pushed her backwards, her feet slipped upon the mossy ground, and she fell with a great splash into the water. I didn’t stop to see how she fell, or when she sank. I ran away, and ran with all my might; but her scream rang in my ears as I went, and the air seemed filled with the sound of it. I ran for upwards of a mile, and then I stopped and drew breath. I walked on again, and walked till morning, following every twist and turn of the river, until about an hour before daybreak, when I came in sight of a village called Renthorpe. You know it, I daresay, mother: it’s full seventeen miles from here. I found a little public-house — a humble little place, called the Hen and Chickens — where I sat all day drinking and smoking. You remember the 1st of March, Lord Haughton’s wedding-day; and you remember my coming home late at night, mother, with my boots and gaiters all stained with clay and mud?”

“Yes, yes; I remember, I remember,” the old woman moaned. “I remember that night — too well, too well.”

Humphrey Melwood staggered to his feet, and took his hat from a peg behind the little door that closed upon the staircase.

“I’ve told you all the story now, mother; and now you know the reason of the change in me. I’ve been a wicked, guilty wretch; but what’s worst of all to me is, that my wretchedness doesn’t seem to have done any good to him I wanted to serve. I was up at the house this morning, in the hope of seeing my lord; but though it was close upon midday he hadn’t left his room, and his valet told me that he didn’t think his master would live to see harvest-time. I’m going out now, mother; don’t sit up for me if I’m late.”

“Where are you going, Humphrey?” the old woman asked entreatingly.

“You know, mother, as well as I do.”

“O Humphrey, Humphrey, you’re going to the public-house again!”

“I’m going to the only place where I can buy forgetfulness!” the young man answered fiercely, jingling some money in the loose pocket of his velveteen shooting-jacket. “Don’t hinder me, mother, unless you want to see me mad. You’ve questioned and watched me, to find out what was the matter with me. You know all about it now, and you know why I’ve turned sot and idler, at the very time when folks were beginning to talk of Humphrey Melwood’s growing an honest industrious fellow after all.”

The young man opened the door, and went out upon the gravel drive. Ethel drew herself against the wall, between the door and window, and though Humphrey brushed against her dress as he passed her, he was quite unconscious of her presence. He unlocked the gates, opened one of them, and went out into the road, banging the gate behind him as he went.

The wretched wife crept slowly away from the place where she had heard the story of her husband’s secret. To some women it might have been a relief to know that the hand they loved was free from actual guilt. But it was not so to Ethel. To her it was no comfort to know that another had done the fatal deed, since it had been done for his sake, and he had failed to intercede for the victim by so much as a word, by so much as a look.

But was this so? Was she to accept Humphrey Melwood’s condemnation of the man she loved? Alas, yes; for Humphrey’s confession had only confirmed the mute revelation which Gervoise had already made of his guilt. The fitful colour in his face, the feverish sparkle in his eyes, the restless gaiety, the sudden fits of gloom — to Ethel’s innocent mind these signs had been all incomprehensible until to-day. But she had the clue to the secret now; and she looked back and saw that, from the hour of the marriage in Pendon Church, her husband’s mind had been haunted by the shadow of his victim.

 

Chapter 21
Identified

Stephen Hurst went to work very quietly to investigate the wild accusation made by Herr von Volterchoker. It was a strange position for him to occupy, since, in so doing, he was acting as the friend of the man who, of all other men, he had most reason to dislike. But it was a part of his compact with Ethel, since to serve her husband was to do her double service.

“O, how she loves him!” the young man thought. “How tenderly she loves him!”

After sitting in his study for upwards of an hour, thinking over the business before him, and deliberating on the course which he ought to pursue, the young man went to his father’s lawyer, Mr. Warboys, of Avondale — an elderly man, who was the very personification of gravity and silence, and who might safely have been trusted with the state secrets of a nation.

To this gentleman Stephen Hurst delegated the task of watching the man who called himself Vokes, and lodged at the Rose and Crown at Pendon. The lawyer set his confidential clerk to watch Mr. Vokes’s present movements, and, if possible, he was to obtain some information about the stranger’s past history.

Having thus secured the help of a very powerful ally, Stephen was able to leave Warwickshire. He went to London by an evening train, which reached the Euston terminus at half-past ten o’clock. He slept at an hotel close to the station, and early the next morning took a preparatory step towards investigating the details of Gervoise Palgrave’s marriage, supposing the Gervoise Palgrave of the marriage certificate exhibited by Ethel’s visitor to be one and the same with Gervoise Palgrave, Earl of Haughton.

The copy of the certificate which the young clergyman had made from memory told him that the marriage had been solemnised at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and that the bride’s name was Pickshaw — Agatha Pickshaw, daughter of William Pickshaw, of —

Here Stephen’s memory had failed him. He had only been able to read the certificate once, and though he had read it very carefully, some of the details had escaped him. He remembered the name of the bride and the bride’s father, but he forgot the name of the street in which the bride and her father lived.

But this omission might easily be remedied. He sent for a Post-office Directory, and looked for the name of Pickshaw. There were several Pickshaws altogether; but there was only one Pickshaw in Westminster, and this Pickshaw was called William, and pursued the trade of carver and gilder, at No. 7 Little Tolmin-street.

Nothing could be clearer than this. Mr. Hurst took a hasty breakfast, sent for a cab, and was driven off to Little Tolmin-street. He found Mr. Pickshaw busily employed in the little workshop behind the half-glass door. He came out at the sound of the bell, and bowed deferentially to the young clergyman.

Stephen introduced himself very briefly. He was a clergyman, he said, and he came in the interests of one of his parishioners.

The old man left his work, and took his visitor to the sitting-room above the shop, the room in which his interview with Herr von Volterchoker had taken place.

“I believe you are the father of Agatha Pickshaw,” he said, “who married a person named Grervoise Palgrave some years ago?”

“I am, sir,” the old man answered; “and if you can give me any information about my poor daughter, you will be doing me a great favour.”

“You do not know, then, what has become of Mrs. Palgrave?”

“No, indeed, sir. And I would be very glad to know.”

Little by little Mr. Pickshaw told Stephen the same story he had told the clown.

“Then you can give me no news about my daughter, sir?” the old man said, after he had told Stephen all that he had to tell.

“No, Mr. Pickshaw, as yet I can tell you nothing,” Mr. Hurst answered gravely; and I fear that there is little hope you will ever have any good tidings of your daughter.”

“O sir, you know that she is dead — you know that my poor Agatha is dead — and you won’t tell me the truth.”

Stephen Hurst shook his head.

“I know nothing,” he said. “I am certain of nothing.

I am groping in the dark, and anything I say may mislead you, since I am utterly ignorant of the truth. A woman was drowned last March near Avondale, in Warwickshire, and I have been told that she was your daughter, Agatha Palgrave. But I believe the man who told me this to be a scoundrel, and I attach no credit to his assertions. I want, if possible, to discover the identity of the man called Gervoise Palgrave, the man who married your daughter. Can you help me to do that?”

The old man reflected for some moments, scratching his head with a nervous feeble hand.

“There’s a photograph upstairs, sir,” he said at last. “There’s a photograph of my son-in-law, that was taken a twelvemonth after his marriage, if you’d like to see that.”

Stephen begged to be allowed to see the photograph. The old man went outside the sitting-room door, and called to his daughter. The girl’s voice answered him from the story above.

“There’s a photograph of Gervoise still hanging in the room your sister Agatha used to sleep in, isn’t there?” asked Mr. Pickshaw.

“Yes, father, there is.”

“Bring it down, then.”

The girl came down presently with the photograph in her hand. It was a very poor likeness, framed in a tawdry gilt border of Mr. Pickshaw’s workmanship; but the resemblance was quite sufficient to identify Gervoise Palgrave, Lord Haughton, as the Gervoise Palgrave who had married Agatha Pickshaw.

“Is my poor daughter’s husband the person you are looking for?” asked the old man anxiously.

“Yes; this is the portrait of the person I know.”

“And will that help you to find out what has become of my daughter?”

“I think the knowledge will help me to do so; but your daughter’s fate is a mystery to me as yet. Our first and most important duty is to find Gervoise Palgrave’s son. Can you give me a minute description of the man who called here with the boy?”

Mr. Pickshaw did his best to describe the personal appearance of Herr von Volterchoker. Wherever he was at fault, his daughter helped him out; and between them they gave a description which enabled Stephen to recognise Mr. Pickshaw’s visitor as the man who had intruded upon Lady Haughton.

“I think I know the man,” Stephen said, “and I have good reason to think him a villain. But it strikes me that he is one of those clever villains who are rather apt to overreach themselves. I will do my uttermost to find the clue to your daughter’s fate, Mr. Pickshaw, and it shall go hard but that your grandson shall have his rights, even if his mother is beyond the reach of justice.”

“My grandson’s rights!” murmured the old man; “little Georgey’s rights! Gervoise is better off, then, than he was when he left me?”

“He is,” answered Stephen, “much better off.”

The Pickshaws would fain have questioned him further, but he would tell them nothing more.

“There must be some foundation of truth in that man’s accusation of Lord Haughton,” Stephen thought, as he walked slowly away from Tolmin-street; “and if the story of the marriage was true, there may have been some truth in the darker story of — Heaven grant that the earl’s illness may be a mortal one, and that his death may save Ethel from the shame and anguish of knowing that she has married a villain!”

 

Chapter 22
The Parting Of The Foster-Brothers

Lord Haughton was dying. The doctors who attended on him — the grave physicians from London and Birmingham, who held daily consultations in one of the darksome old rooms at the Chase — no longer made any pretence of hope. They told Ethel that she must be prepared for the worst. Her husband was doomed: he had been foredoomed for a long time, the doctors told her. She received these sad tidings very quietly. The doctors wondered at her still white face, her blank tearless eyes.

It was better that it should be so, she thought. What was there in life for this poor guilty creature, whose existence was blighted by remorse for that foul crime in the doing of which he had been a tacit accomplice?

“O my God,” she cried, in her lonely hours of agony, “to think that I, who love him so much, should confess that it is better for him to die!”

Night and day she kept watch beside the dying man’s bed, only lying down for a brief interval of broken slumber on a sofa in the adjoining room. Gervoise would have had her leave him, but she laid a gentle hand upon his lips, and implored him not to say that.

“Let me be with you, Gervoise,” she said entreatingly; “I am happy with you, my dear.”

They were quite alone when she said this; they were alone, and the earl seemed a little better than usual. Ethel was sitting in a low chair by the bedside, and the bright June sunshine was streaming into the room.

“You are happy with me?” exclaimed Gervoise in a faint, tremulous voice, looking at his wife with an expression of surprise; “you are happy with me; and yet—”

“And yet I know all, Gervoise,” Ethel answered, in a low earnest voice; “I know all. I did not believe what that man told me; and yet — and yet I thought he would scarcely dare to make such an accusation unless there was some truth in his words. But I heard something else; I overheard that most miserable young man, Humphrey Melwood, tell his mother the dreadful story of that which happened on the night before my wedding. I heard the story, Gervoise; I heard how you were tempted by this man in his mistaken devotion to you — I heard and understood how he himself, poor ignorant creature, was tempted by his love for you. The crime was very dreadful — most horrible, most cruel; but O, my darling, there is forgiveness for all wrongdoings; there is a God who has said that although our sins are as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow.”

The girl’s voice broke, and she burst into a torrent of sobs, and buried her face in one of the pillows that supported the wasted form of the invalid. Gervoise was silent, but great teardrops rolled slowly down his hollow cheeks. For the first time since the night of Agatha’s appearance at Palgrave Chase, the icy bonds that bound that stubborn soul gave way before the warm influence of holy words, and the guilty man wept. For the first time, and in that moment, his weary heart felt something nearer peace than it had ever known since that fatal night of crime.

“And you can love me still, Ethel?” he said, after a long pause — a long silence in which the two sorrowful hearts beat in unison, strengthened by the might of affection in that supreme hour of anguish; “you can love me still, in spite of all?”

“Yes, dearest, better than I ever yet loved you, for you have more need of my love. A wife’s affection would indeed be worthless if it grew less when it was most needed. I love you, Gervoise; and I know now what an unquestioning, unreasoning sentiment love is. In all my misery it has survived, unchanged and changeless. Trust in it, Gervoise — trust in it almost as you may trust in the mercy of God.”

The young wife sat long by her husband’s side, talking to him and reading to him. She read blessed words out of that holy gospel which brings sweet promises of mercy to the weary sinner; which offers the bright hope of redemption to the penitent heart. He fell asleep by and by, worn out by the emotions of that long interview; and Ethel slept too, in the easy-chair by the invalid’s bedside, until late in the evening, when she was awakened by her faithful maid, Lucy Trotter, who brought her mistress a cup of strong tea.

There was a shaded lamp burning on a table at some distance from the bed when Ethel woke, and there was a bright wood fire, which gave the invalid’s chamber a comfortable and cheerful appearance.

“And two more desolate creeturs than you two looked when I first came into the room, with the fire low, and no candles, and your white dress looking quite ghostly in the twilight, as if you was a warnin’ sperit sittin’ by poor Lord Haughton’s bedside, I never clapped eyes on. But I’ve tidied up and made things a bit comfortable, without disturbing of you; and now do take a cup of tea, Miss Ethel, like a Christian.”

Lucy had never left off calling her young mistress Miss Ethel in familiar converse. She had been a great comfort to the countess in this terrible hour of trial, although she had no suspicion of that dark secret which added such a terrible sting to Ethel’s natural grief.

Late that night Gervoise rose suddenly from a long sleep that had seemed strangely peaceful.

“I want to see Humphrey,” he said; “I want to see my foster-brother. I must see him.”

It was past eleven, but one of the servants was sent immediately to tell the gamekeeper; and after an interval of little more than a quarter of an hour the young man’s heavy footsteps sounded in the room next to Lord Haughton’s, and in the next minute Humphrey came into the sick-chamber. His hair was disordered, his eyes were bloodshot, and he had a strange, scared look in his pale face. He had been drinking that night, and almost every other night ever since the death of Agatha Palgrave; and he had only just staggered home from an alehouse when the messenger arrived at Margery Melwood’s cottage.

But at the sight of his foster-brother Humphrey seemed to grow suddenly sober. He went to the bedside, and fell on his knees, with his brawny arms clasped upon the silken coverlet.

“O master,” he cried, O master, I loved thee so, and yet I have brought thee to this. Me and my wickedness have been a blight upon thy life, Master Gervoise; and yet God knows I’d have given my own life for thee, and held it no favour. But I have been a wicked wretch, Master Gervoise, and have brought him as I love to his death.”

“No, no!” gasped the Earl of Haughton, lifting himself into a sitting position, and laying his wasted fingers on the gamekeeper’s clasped hands. “My sin, Humphrey, my own sin, has brought me to this. I sent for you to tell you that it was my own sin, Humphrey. Let the full burden of it rest upon me. I have repented, Humphrey: an angel — an angel upon earth — has spoken holy words of consolation to me. I have repented of my dreadful sin; I have prayed, Humphrey, for you as well as for myself, and such peace has come down upon my soul — such heavenly peace — that I dare to think it is an earnest of God’s forgiveness for my sins. And you, Humphrey — you, too, will repent. Promise me that, by the fidelity which has been so fatal to us both; promise me that you will repent, and pray, as I have prayed, for pardon. Your life shall not be a hard one. My wife, who is an angel of patient love and forgiveness, she will see that no common troubles of want or poverty shall ever affect you, Humphrey. And now good-bye, old friend — foster-brother! My prayer is that we may meet again, purified from our sins, in a better world. Good-bye!”

The sick man’s feeble fingers tightened on the rough hands of his foster-brother. A rain of burning tears fell upon those wan fingers as Humphrey’s face bent over them. The gamekeeper wept aloud in passionate irrepressible grief.

Ethel heard his hoarse sobs, and came in to put an end to this agonising interview. She touched Humphrey on the shoulder as he knelt beside her husband’s bed, and motioned to him to leave the room.

He obeyed her without an attempt at remonstrance. With his hands clasped before his face, he moved with slow footsteps to the door; but at the door he turned and spoke to Ethel.

“It was for your sake, my lady,” he said; “it was all for your sake. You’d need love him well when you remember that.”

He turned away as he finished speaking, and closed the door after him as softly as if he had been accustomed to a sickroom.

That night, for the first time, Gervoise spoke to Ethel of his child — the missing boy whom he had mourned sincerely and truly enough, until his grief had melted away before the full sunshine of his new-born love.

“O Ethel, I must see him,” the sick man cried in eager, passionate accents; “I must see that boy before I die, or else — who — who will identify him — who will give the young earl his rights? I know that you will protect and love him, Ethel; but I must identify him before I die. Some impostor might be palmed off upon you if I die before I have identified my son. I had a mark made upon his arm — the initials ‘G. P.,’ and an earl’s coronet. But any wretch could simulate such a mark as that upon the arm of the base-born brat he might choose to substitute for my son. And yet there is one means by which you, Ethel, might recognise the boy. Last August, when I was very poor — penniless, Ethel, starving; ah, you look wonderingly at me, poor child! You have need to wonder, for mine is a strange history. Last August, when I was wandering destitute upon the stones of London, I sold a picture — a portrait of my boy — to a pawnbroker in Caslope-street, St. Giles’s. Can you remember the name of the street? Yes, yes, you will, I know; and you will find my boy for me, Ethel. Warboys will help you. The child must be found; remember that, Ethel. I must see him, and acknowledge him as my heir, before I die. Write, dearest; write to Warboys at once. He is a clever old man. I know that it is late to send to him but time is so short, Ethel, so short. I must see my boy before I die.”

Gervoise sank back upon his pillow. All the emotions of that day had terribly exhausted him, both bodily and mentally. He grew delirious presently, and rambled strangely in his talk, making a confused medley of all his past life; one moment fancying himself penniless in the streets of London, at another moment screaming the chorus of some convivial song that had been familiar to him at his spendthrift father’s table; anon echoing the shouts of the lookers-on when his cousin rode to his death.

The earl’s valet came in to bathe his master’s head with some cooling lotion; but Ethel would suffer no hired nurse to tend that beloved invalid. With her own hands she damped his burning forehead; with her own hands she administered the fever-draught to those parched lips.

Then, when the delirium subsided, and the sick man sank at last into a peaceful sleep, Ethel opened a writing-portfolio that lay under the light of the shaded lamp on the table near the fire, and wrote to the Avondale solicitor, telling him all that her husband had told her about the missing child, and imploring him most piteously to employ every possible means of finding the boy, since the earl’s days and hours were numbered. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when the countess sealed this letter, and gave it into the hands of her husband’s valet.

“It is a matter of life and death,” she said. You must wake one of the grooms, and tell him to ride to Avondale immediately with this letter.”

 

Chapter 23
The Last Of Gervoise Palgrave

Stephen Hurst returned to Warwickshire the morning after Mr. Warboys received Lady Haughton’s letter, and the two men consulted together as to what could be done.

“The child must be found at any price,” said Stephen, after he had read Ethel’s letter; “he must be found in time to be recognised and acknowledged by his father. There is no hope, I suppose, for Lord Haughton? he is really dying?”

“Yes, he is dying. I saw Wilmington, of Birmingham, yesterday, and he told me that even the countess is resigned to the worst — to the inevitable.”

“The child must be found, Warboys. I shall go to the station at once, and send a telegram to Printing-house square. There must be an advertisement for the missing boy in tomorrow’s Times.”

Stephen Hurst seated himself at the table, took up a pen, and wrote an advertisement offering a hundred pounds’ reward for the production of George Palgrave. He gave a minute description of the child’s appearance, and of the mark upon his arm.

This advertisement he saw despatched to London by electric telegraph. To the advertisement he added an entreaty that it might be immediately inserted, as it related to a matter of life and death.

Having done this, he hurried off to a printing-office in Avondale market-place, where he set the printers to work to strike off a hundred handbills containing the same announcement as that in the advertisement.

Before evening these handbills were ready, and without stopping to rest or refresh himself Mr. Hurst drove back to the railway station, with the bills in a brown-paper parcel. He took a ticket for London, and left Avondale by the evening express.

He alighted at the Euston terminus at ten o’clock, and drove at once to a police-station, whence he saw men sent right and left to distribute his hundred handbills, while a thousand fresh ones were being printed in an office near at hand.

Then, and then only, did Mr. Hurst take breath; and at breakfast next morning he had the pleasure of reading his own advertisement at the top of the second column in the Times supplement.

The doctors reigned supreme at Palgrave Chase. They came backwards and forwards between Avondale and London, and between Avondale and Birmingham, and contrived to keep Gervoise Palgrave alive by the exercise of their skill and science. Between them, and with infinite care and trouble, they kept the feeble lamp of life faintly flickering, while the Earl of Haughton waited, Heaven only knows how anxiously, for the coming of his son.

Sometimes he lay for hours together in a dull stupor that was scarcely sleep; at other times he was delirious, and rambled wildly in his talk, as he had done upon the night of his farewell interview with Humphrey. But every now and then he started up suddenly from his pillow, and asked one question, the form of which rarely varied, often as he repeated it: “Is there any news of my boy?”

The slow days dragged themselves out, and as yet there were no tidings of the missing child. The feeble flicker of the lamp grew fainter and fainter, and Ethel trembled as she watched her husband’s fitful slumbers, fearing that every awakening would be the last.

One day the invalid seemed better, and even stronger: a brighter light burned in his eyes, and a flash relieved the ghastly whiteness of his careworn face. At first poor Ethel was deceived by that seeming improvement; but when she spoke to Doctor Wilmington of her newborn hopes, he shook his head sadly.

“Dear Lady Haughton,” he said, “I only wish I dared give you hope. But I must not deceive you. You have sometimes watched a candle burn itself out, have you not? If you have, you must have seen how brightly the flame burns — at the last.”

Ethel bowed her head upon her hands, and wept bitterly. All through that bright June day she sat by the dying man’s bedside, reading to him, and praying with him.

Stephen Hurst had paid several visits to the earl in his capacity of priest and consoler. Gervoise had received him cordially, and had listened to him with reverential attention; but after these serious interviews, the sick man sometimes said to his wife,

“The good words do me more good when you read them to me, Ethel; my prayers seem most earnest when you pray with me.”

The low sunlight shone upon those two young heads. Gervoise lay very quietly with his wasted hand clasped in that of his wife, with his eyes fixed lovingly on her face.

“My own one!” he murmured; “my own one, how good you have been to me! My sin has been bitterly punished, Ethel. It seems very, very hard to leave you, my lovely and loving one, dear redeeming angel of my life!”

He lay silent, exhausted by emotion. The golden light about the two young heads changed to a deeper gold, and then melted into a faint crimson glow that trembled like the reflection of a distant fire upon the dark oak walls.

“Ethel,” said the earl suddenly, “I feel so much better to-night; I almost feel as if a change had come to me — a change for the better. I shall live, perhaps; I shall live, Ethel, and we shall be happy in spite of all.”

He looked in his wife’s face; but something — something indefinable in that pale earnest face — told him the falsehood of his hopes.

“O Ethel, you know something,” he said; “the doctors have told you there is no hope.”

“No hope upon earth, Gervoise,” the wife cried in a broken voice, “but a better hope than that, dear — the hope that we may be happy together in heaven.”

She drew her arm round her husband’s neck as she spoke, and in the next moment his head rested on her shoulder.

“O my angel,” he murmured, “my angel of mercy and consolation, it is not bitter to die thus.”

But presently the earl’s head was lifted suddenly; his eyes flashed with a new light.

“Listen!” he cried, holding up his hand, and looking towards the door of the apartment; “listen, Ethel!”

The sound which had startled the dying man was the sound of a child’s voice, an innocent childish voice, that cried, “Papa, papa! where are you, papa?”

“My son is found!” cried the earl. “Bing the bell, Ethel; ring, dearest, and let every creature in the house come to witness my recognition of my boy.”

Ethel obeyed, and as she pulled the handle of the bell, the door was opened, and Georgey ran into the room, and sprang into his father’s arms. Close behind him came Stephen Hurst.

“Papa, papa,” he cried, “they told me you had gone away from me, and this gentleman says you were looking for me all the time. But O, papa dear, how white your face is! — how ill you look!”

The room was presently filled with eager witnesses. Two of the medical men who attended upon the earl, and all the upper servants of the household, were assembled there to witness Lord Haughton’s recognition of his son. And then, when this had been done, the father clasped the boy in his arms in one fond last embrace.

“Georgey,” he said, in a low tender voice, “I am going away on a long journey. I may never see you again upon this earth. I want you to love this lady when I am gone. She will be a mother to you, my pet; for she knows the sad story of your childhood, and she will pity you and love you for my sake, Georgey; and because it is her nature to be tender and pitiful to everything that has need of her sweet tenderness and pity. You will be very happy with her, Georgey; much happier than you have ever been with me. And now send him away, Ethel,” said Lord Haughton to his wife; “send the child away. There is very little more time left for me on earth, and it belongs to you, my darling wife; to you and to God.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

When the clocks of Avondale chimed midnight little Georgey Palgrave was Earl of Haughton.

Stephen Hurst’s search had been rewarded at last. The boy had been discovered by means of one of the bills, which the good-natured Irish wife of the organ-grinder had spelt out upon a dead wall in the back slums of Westminster.

She hurried home to her husband and told him of her wonderful discovery, and the two washed and dressed the boy in his tidiest raiment, and carried him off to the police-office to claim the reward.

Gervoise Palgrave was buried in a niche next that which held the coffins of his luckless cousin and the fair young countess. He was buried on a stormy day, under a sky that looked dark against the windows of St. Gwendoline’s Church; and mingled with the howling of the wind that shook the doors and windows of the edifice, and fluttered the clergyman’s white robes as he stood above the open vault, there was the sound of hoarse and passionate sobs, the voice of a strong man’s ungovernable anguish. That mourner, whose violent grief would not be repressed, was Humphrey Melwood.

After the funeral ceremony he wandered out into the meadows through which the winding river took its course. He wandered on indifferent to the beating of the rain, the howling of the wind, that seemed to shriek as it swept across the flat meadows; and it was not until nightfall that he went into a low, tumble-down-looking village inn — the same place where he had gone for a shelter upon the morning of Ethel’s wedding-day.

Here he sat, drinking deeply, but silently and moodily, heedless of the rustic talk of a little group of villagers who dropped one by one into the low-roofed tap-room, wrapped in a gloomy silence, and with a dark and settled shadow on his face.

The villagers left as they had come, one by one, and the last who went away left Humphrey Melwood still ordering fresh drink.

He did not leave the place till he was sent away by the landlord, who wanted to shut up his house, and did not care to stop up any longer, even for the sake of a customer who drank a bottle of brandy at a sitting.

Humphrey flung the man a sovereign, and told him, in a hoarse thick voice, not to trouble himself about the change. Then, with slow, heavy footsteps, he staggered out of the house, out into the dark, stormy night, never again to be seen alive by any mortal eyes; never again to be seen till, in the dismal early light of morning, his dead body was found washed on shore not half a mile from the spot where the corpse of his victim had been found on the bridal morning of Ethel Hurst.

Whether he had drowned himself, or whether he had lost his way and stumbled into the water, under the inky darkness of that stormy night, there was no one to say. The coroner’s jury returned an open verdict, and Humphrey Melwood was buried in a little gloomy graveyard behind St. Gwendoline’s Church, and only half-a-dozen paces from the vault of the Palgraves.

For nearly four years Lady Haughton remained a widow, leading a solitary life, whose chief occupation was the performance of good works. To the poor around Palgrave Chase she was a ministering angel, to her dead husband’s son the most tender and devoted of mothers. The boy was her comfort and happiness; and she told herself that it was for his sake she consented to a second marriage, when, after those quiet years of widowhood, she became the wife of his guardian, tutor, and friend, and her own first cousin, Stephen Hurst, much to the delight of Sir Langley, and with the hearty approval of that self-appointed Areopagus of modem civilisation, Society, as represented by the county families.

And what of Herr von Volterchoker? The end of his career it is not given this chronicler to record. Foiled of his hoped-for prize, he fell back into the ranks of vagabondism, to sink lower and lower in the social scale, until he descended to that last depth to which none need care to follow him. Few among the dangerous classes are better known or more closely watched by the police, who hopefully await the hour when Herr von Volterchoker, alias Vokes, alias Slippery Valker, and a few other names of dubious import, shall become amenable to penal servitude for life.

 

Eveline’s Visitant

A Ghost Story

It was at a masked ball at the Palais Royal that my fatal quarrel with my first cousin André de Brissac began. The quarrel was about a woman. The women who followed the footsteps of Philip of Orleans were the causes of many such disputes; and there was scarcely one fair head in all that glittering throng which, to a man versed in social histories and mysteries, might not have seemed bedabbled with blood.

I shall not record the name of her for love of whom André de Brissac and I crossed one of the bridges, in the dim August dawn, on our way to the waste ground beyond the church of Saint-Germain des Près.

There were many beautiful vipers in those days, and she was one of them. I can feel the chill breath of that August morning blowing in my face, as I sit in my dismal chamber at my château of Puy Verdun to-night, alone in the stillness, writing the strange story of my life. I can see the white mist rising from the river, the grim outline of the Châtelet, and the square towers of Notre Dame black against the pale-gray sky. Even more vividly can I recall André’s fair young face, as he stood opposite to me with his two friends — scoundrels both, and alike eager for that unnatural fray. We were a strange group to be seen in a summer sunrise, all of us fresh from the heat and clamour of the Regent’s saloons — André in a quaint hunting-dress copied from a family portrait at Puy Verdun, I costumed as one of Law’s Mississippi Indians; the other men in like garish frippery, adorned with broideries and jewels that looked wan in the pale light of dawn.

Our quarrel had been a fierce one — a quarrel which could have but one result, and that the direst. I had struck him; and the welt raised by my open hand was crimson upon his fair womanish face as he stood opposite to me. The eastern sun shone on the face presently, and dyed the cruel mark with a deeper red; but the sting of my own wrongs was fresh, and I had not yet learned to despise myself for that brutal outrage.

To André de Brissac such an insult was most terrible. He was the favourite of Fortune, the favourite of women; and I was nothing, — a rough soldier who had done my country good service, but in the boudoir of a Parabère a mannerless boor.

We fought, and I wounded him mortally. Life had been very sweet for him; and I think that a frenzy of despair took possession of him when he felt the life-blood ebbing away. He beckoned me to him as he lay on the ground. I went, and knelt at his side.

“Forgive me, André!” I murmured.

He took no more heed of my words than if that piteous entreaty had been the idle ripple of the river near at hand.

“Listen to me, Hector de Brissac,” he said. “I am not one who believes that a man has done with earth because his eyes glaze and his jaw stiffens. They will bury me in the old vault at Puy Verdun; and you will be master of the château. Ah, I know how lightly they take things in these days, and how Dubois will laugh when he hears that Ca has been killed in a duel. They will bury me, and sing masses for my soul; but you and I have not finished our affair yet, my cousin.

I will be with you when you least look to see me, — I, with this ugly scar upon the face that women have praised and loved. I will come to you when your life seems brightest.

I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy. My shadowy form shall shut the sunlight from your life. Men with such iron will as mine can do what they please, Hector de Brissac. It is my will to haunt you when I am dead.”

All this in short broken sentences he whispered into my ear. I had need to bend my ear close to his dying lips; but the iron will of André de Brissac was strong enough to do battle with Death, and I believe he said all he wished to say before his head fell back upon the velvet cloak they had spread beneath him, never to be lifted again.

As he lay there, you would have fancied him a fragile stripling, too fair and frail for the struggle called life; but there are those who remember the brief manhood of André de Brissac, and who can bear witness to the terrible force of that proud nature.

I stood looking down at the young face with that foul mark upon it; and God knows I was sorry for what I had done.

Of those blasphemous threats which he had whispered in my ear I took no heed. I was a soldier, and a believer. There was nothing absolutely dreadful to me in the thought that I had killed this man. I had killed many men on the battlefield; and this one had done me cruel wrong.

My friends would have had me cross the frontier to escape the consequences of my act; but I was ready to face those consequences, and I remained in France. I kept aloof from the court, and received a hint that I had best confine myself to my own province. Many masses were chanted in the little chapel of Puy Verdun for the soul of my dead cousin, and his coffin filled a niche in the vault of our ancestors.

His death had made me a rich man; and the thought that it was so made my newly-acquired wealth very hateful to me. I lived a lonely existence in the old château, where I rarely held converse with any but the servants of the household, all of whom had served my cousin, and none of whom liked me.

It was a hard and bitter life. It galled me, when I rode through the village, to see the peasant-children shrink away from me. I have seen old women cross themselves stealthily as I passed them by. Strange reports had gone forth about me; and there were those who whispered that I had given my soul to the Evil One as the price of my cousin’s heritage. From my boyhood I had been dark of visage and stern of manner; and hence, perhaps, no woman’s love had ever been mine. I remember my mother’s face in all its changes of expression; but I can remember no look of affection that ever shone on me. That other woman, beneath whose feet I laid my heart, was pleased to accept my homage, but she never loved me; and the end was treachery.

I had grown hateful to myself and had well-nigh began to hate my fellow-creatures, when a feverish desire seized upon me, and I pined to be back in the press and throng of the busy world once again. I went back to Paris, where I kept myself aloof from the court, and where an angel took compassion upon me.

She was the daughter of an old comrade, a man whose merits had been neglected, whose achievements had been ignored, and who sulked in his shabby lodging like a rat in a hole, while all Paris went mad with the Scotch Financier, and gentlemen and lacqueys were trampling one another to death in the Rue Quincampoix. The only child of this little cross-grained old captain of dragoons was an incarnate sunbeam, whose mortal name was Eveline Duchalet.

She loved me. The richest blessings of our lives are often those which cost us least. I wasted the best years of my youth in the worship of a wicked woman, who jilted and cheated me at last. I gave this meek angel but a few courteous words — a little fraternal tenderness — and lo, she loved me. The life which had been so dark and desolate grew bright beneath her influence; and I went back to Puy Verdun with a fair young bride for my companion.

Ah, how sweet a change there was in my life and in my home! The village children no longer shrank appalled as the dark horseman rode by, the village crones no longer crossed themselves; for a woman rode by his side — a woman whose charities had won the love of all those ignorant creatures, and whose companionship had transformed the gloomy lord of the château into a loving husband and a gentle master. The old retainers forgot the untimely fate of my cousin, and served me with cordial willingness, for love of their young mistress.

There are no words which can tell the pure and perfect happiness of that time. I felt like a traveller who had traversed the frozen seas of an arctic region, remote from human love or human companionship, to find himself on a sudden in the bosom of a verdant valley, in the sweet atmosphere of home. The change seemed too bright to be real; and I strove in vain to put away from my mind the vague suspicion that my new life was but some fantastic dream.

So brief were those halcyon hours, that, looking back on them now, it is scarcely strange if I am still half inclined to fancy the first days of my married life could have been no more than a dream.

Neither in my days of gloom nor in my days of happiness had I been troubled by the recollection of André’s blasphemous oath. The words which with his last breath he had whispered in my ear were vain and meaningless to me. He had vented his rage in those idle threats, as he might have vented it in idle execrations. That he will haunt the footsteps of his enemy after death is the one revenge which a dying man can promise himself; and if men had power thus to avenge themselves, the earth would be peopled with phantoms.

I had lived for three years at Puy Verdun; sitting alone in the solemn midnight by the hearth where he had sat, pacing the corridors that had echoed his footfall; and in all that time my fancy had never so played me false as to shape the shadow of the dead. Is it strange, then, if I had forgotten André’s horrible promise?

There was no portrait of my cousin at Puy Verdun. It was the age of boudoir art, and a miniature set in the lid of a gold bonbonnière, or hidden artfully in a massive bracelet, was more fashionable than a clumsy life-size image, fit only to hang on the gloomy walls of a provincial château rarely visited by its owner. My cousin’s fair face had adorned more than one bonbonnière, and had been concealed in more than one bracelet; but it was not among the faces that looked down from the panelled walls of Puy Verdun.

In the library I found a picture which awoke painful associations. It was the portrait of a De Brissac, who had flourished in the time of Francis the First; and it was from this picture that my cousin André had copied the quaint hunting-dress he wore at the Regent’s ball. The library was a room in which I spent a good deal of my life; and I ordered a curtain to be hung before this picture.

We had been married three months, when Eveline one day asked, “Who is the lord of the château nearest to this?”

I looked at her with astonishment.

My dearest,” I answered, “do you not know that there is no other château within forty miles of Puy Verdun?”

“Indeed!” she said; “that is strange.”

I asked her why the fact seemed strange to her; and after much entreaty I obtained from her the reason of her surprise.

In her walks about the park and woods during the last month, she had met a man who, by his dress and bearing, was obviously of noble rank. She had imagined that he occupied some château near at hand, and that his estate adjoined ours. I was at a loss to imagine who this stranger could be; for my estate of Puy Verdun lay in the heart of a desolate region, and unless when some traveller’s coach went lumbering and jingling through the village, one had little more chance of encountering a gentleman than of meeting a demigod.

Have you seen this man often, Eveline?” I asked.

She answered, in a tone which had a touch of sadness, “I see him every day.”

“Where, dearest?”

“Sometimes in the park, sometimes in the wood. You know the little cascade, Hector, where there is some old neglected rock-work that forms a kind of cavern. I have taken a fancy to that spot, and have spent many mornings there reading. Of late I have seen the stranger there every morning.”

“He has never dared to address you?”

Never. I have looked up from my book, and have seen him standing at a little distance, watching me silently. I have continued reading; and when I have raised my eyes again I have found him gone. He must approach and depart with a stealthy tread, for I never hear his footfall. Sometimes I have almost wished that he would speak to me. It is so terrible to see him standing silently there.”

“He is some insolent peasant who seeks to frighten you.” My wife shook her head.

“He is no peasant,” she answered. “It is not by his dress alone I judge, for that is strange to me. He has an air of nobility which it is impossible to mistake.”

“Is he young or old?”

“He is young and handsome.”

I was much disturbed by the idea of this stranger’s intrusion on my wife’s solitude; and I went straight to the village to inquire if any stranger had been seen there. I could hear of no one. I questioned the servants closely, but without result. Then I determined to accompany my wife in her walks, and to judge for myself of the rank of the stranger.

For a week I devoted all my mornings to rustic rambles with Eveline in the park and woods; and in all that week we saw no one but an occasional peasant in sabots, or one of our own household returning from a neighbouring farm.

I was a man of studious habits, and those summer rambles disturbed the even current of my life. My wife perceived this, and entreated me to trouble myself no further.

“I will spend my mornings in the pleasaunce, Hector,” she said; “the stranger cannot intrude upon me there.”

“I begin to think the stranger is only a phantasm of your own romantic brain,” I replied, smiling at the earnest face lifted to mine. “A châtelaine who is always reading romances, may well meet handsome cavaliers in the woodlands. I daresay I have Mdlle. Scuderi to thank for this noble stranger, and that he is only the great Cyrus in modem costume.”

“Ah, that is the point which mystifies me, Hector,” she said. “The stranger’s costume is not modern. He looks as an old picture might look if it could descend from its frame.” Her words pained me, for they reminded me of that hidden picture in the library, and the quaint hunting costume of orange and purple which André de Brissac wore at the Regent’s ball.

After this my wife confined her walks to the pleasaunce; and for many weeks I heard no more of the nameless stranger. I dismissed all thought of him from my mind, for a graver and heavier care had come upon me. My wife’s health began to droop. The change in her was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible to those who watched her day by day. It was only when she put on a rich gala dress which she had not worn for months that I saw how wasted the form must be on which the embroidered bodice hung so loosely, and how wan and dim were the eyes which had once been brilliant as the jewels she wore in her hair.

I sent a messenger to Paris to summon one of the court physicians; but I knew that many days must needs elapse before he could arrive at Puy Verdun.

In the interval I watched my wife with unutterable fear.

It was not her health only that had declined. The change was more painful to behold than any physical alteration. The bright and sunny spirit had vanished, and in the place of my joyous young bride I beheld a woman weighed down by rooted melancholy. In vain I sought to fathom the cause of my darling’s sadness. She assured me that she had no reason for sorrow or discontent, and that if she seemed sad without a motive, I must forgive her sadness, and consider it as a misfortune rather than a fault.

I told her that the court physician would speedily find some cure for her despondency, which must needs arise from physical causes, since she had no real ground for sorrow. But although she said nothing, I could see she had no hope or belief in the healing powers of medicine.

One day, when I wished to beguile her from that pensive silence in which she was wont to sit an hour at a time, I told her, laughing, that she appeared to have forgotten her mysterious cavalier of the wood, and it seemed also as if he had forgotten her.

To my wonderment, her pale face became of a sudden crimson; and from crimson changed to pale again in a breath.

“You have never seen him since you deserted your woodland grotto?” I said.

She turned to me with a heart-rending look.

“Hector,” she cried, “I see him every day; and it is that which is killing me.”

She burst into a passion of tears when she had said this. I took her in my arms as if she had been a frightened child, and tried to comfort her.

“My darling, this is madness,” I said. “You know that no stranger can come to you in the pleasaunce. The moat is ten feet wide and always full of water, and the gates are kept locked day and night by old Masson. The châtelaine of a mediæval fortress need fear no intruder in her antique garden.”

My wife shook her head sadly.

“I see him every day,” she said.

On this I believed that my wife was mad. I shrank from questioning her more closely concerning her mysterious visitant. It would be ill, I thought, to give a form and substance to the shadow that tormented her by too close inquiry about its look and manner, its coming and going.

I took care to assure myself that no stranger to the household could by any possibility penetrate to the pleasaunce. Having done this, I was fain to await the coming of the physician.

He came at last. I revealed to him the conviction which was my misery. I told him that I believed my wife to be mad. He saw her — spent an hour alone with her, and then came to me. To my unspeakable relief he assured me of her sanity.

“It is just possible that she may be affected by one delusion,” he said; “but she is so reasonable upon all other points, that I can scarcely bring myself to believe her the subject of a monomania. I am rather inclined to think that she really sees the person of whom she speaks. She described him to me with a perfect minuteness. The descriptions of scenes or individuals given by patients afflicted with monomania are always more or less disjointed; but your wife spoke to me as clearly and calmly as I am now speaking to you.

Are you sure there is no one who can approach her in that garden where she walks?”

“I am quite sure.”

“Is there any kinsman of your steward, or hanger-on of your household, — a young man with a fair womanish face, very pale, and rendered remarkable by a crimson scar, which looks like the mark of a blow?”

“My God!” I cried, as the light broke in upon me all at once. “And the dress — the strange old-fashioned dress?”

“The man wears a hunting costume of purple and orange,” answered the doctor.

I knew then that André de Brissac had kept his word, and that in the hour when my life was brightest his shadow had come between me and happiness.

I showed my wife the picture in the library, for I would fain assure myself that there was some error in my fancy about my cousin. She shook like a leaf when she beheld it, and clung to me convulsively.

“This is witchcraft, Hector,” she said. “The dress in that picture is the dress of the man I see in the pleasaunce; but the face is not his.”

Then she described to me the face of the stranger; and it was my cousin’s face line for line — André de Brissac, whom she had never seen in the flesh. Most vividly of all did she describe the cruel mark upon his face, the trace of a fierce blow from an open hand.

After this I carried my wife away from Puy Verdun. We wandered far — through the southern provinces, and into the very heart of Switzerland. I thought to distance the ghastly phantom, and I fondly hoped that change of scene would bring peace to my wife.

It was not so. Go where we would, the ghost of André de Brissac followed us. To my eyes that fatal shadow never revealed itself. That would have been too poor a vengeance.

It was my wife’s innocent heart which André made the instrument of his revenge. The unholy presence destroyed her life, constant companionship could not shield her from the horrible intruder. In vain did I watch her; in vain did I strive to comfort her.

“He will not let me be at peace,” she said; “he comes between us, Hector. He is standing between us now. I can see his face with the red mark upon it plainer than I see yours.”

One fair moonlight night, when we were together in a mountain village in the Tyrol, my wife cast herself at my feet, and told me she was the worst and vilest of women. “I have confessed all to my director,” she said; “from the first I have not hidden my sin from Heaven. But I feel that death is near me; and before I die I would fain reveal my sin to you.”

“What sin, my sweet one?”

“When first the stranger came to me in the forest, his presence bewildered and distressed me, and I shrank from him as from something strange and terrible. He came again and again; by and by I found myself thinking of him, and watching for his coming. His image haunted me perpetually; I strove in vain to shut his face out of my mind. Then followed an interval in which I did not see him; and, to my shame and anguish, I found that life seemed dreary and desolate without him. After that came the time in which he haunted the pleasaunce; and — O, Hector, kill me if you will, for I deserve no mercy at your hands! — I grew in those days to count the hours that must elapse before his coming, to take no pleasure save in the sight of that pale face with the red brand upon it. He plucked all old familiar joys out of my heart, and left in it but one weird unholy pleasure — the delight of his presence. For a year I have lived but to see him. And now curse me, Hector; for this is my sin. Whether it comes of the baseness of my own heart, or is the work of witchcraft, I know not; but I know that I have striven against this wickedness in vain.”

I took my wife to my breast, and forgave her. In sooth, what had I to forgive? Was the fatality that overshadowed us any work of hers? On the next night she died, with her hand in mine; and at the very last she told me, sobbing and affrighted, that he was by her side.

 

Found In The Muniment Chest

I was three-and-twenty years of age, and I had not long been articled to my father, an old-established family solicitor in the comfortable market-town of Orpingdean, Sussex, when I fell in love with Barbara Ainsleigh at our race-ball. We had a race-meeting and a race-ball at Orpingdean, and we put on our gayest aspect at that ripe meridian of the year, when the corn-fields were growing tawny under the July sunshine.

Miss Ainsleigh was the representative heiress and beauty of Orpingdean, just as my father was the representative family solicitor of that prosperous settlement. She lived with her father in a noble red-brick house of the Queen-Anne period, shut in from the high-road by tall iron gates of ponderous scrollwork, and surrounded on three sides by a garden — a real old-fashioned garden, in the Italian style, with stone terraces and marble balustrades, on which the peacocks used to strut and scream in the quiet summer evenings; and our summer evenings were uncommonly quiet in the roads and lanes about Orpingdean.

Mr. Ainsleigh was an elderly widower, and Barbara his only child. It is scarcely necessary to add that he adored her, and that her path from infancy to womanhood had been liberally bestrewn with those metaphorical roses which the hand of affection, when aided by the purse of wealth, can scatter before the footsteps of a household idol. We have no longer our niche for the Penates; but is there not in every home-circle a god or goddess before whom the rest bow the knee in love, or fear? Miss Ainsleigh had the worship of love, and she deserved it.

I can scarcely trust myself to describe her. It is so difficult to avoid hyperbole when one writes of one’s first love. I will only say that she was a noble English beauty — a dark-eyed, dark-haired Juno, with the freshness of Hebe, and the instinctive grace of Diana.

Mr. Ainsleigh had been for the last twenty years of his life a bibliomaniac; and dearly as he loved his only child, there were some who would have been at a loss to say whether his books and the binding of his books did not usurp the larger share of his divided affections. Never till I knew Barbara’s father did I know how much there may be in the outside of a book. The first day I ever spent in Mr. Ainsleigh’s house was a revelation for me in the art of bookbinding. The bevelled edges — the hand-painting sur tranche — the creamy vellum, relieved by red and gold lettering — the thick crinkly morocco, in all shades of sober russet, and glowing crimson, and orange tawny — the grolier, and gothic, and renaissance, — all that is rare and expensive in the art that was in its prime while printing was yet in its cradle. In the little world of Orpingdean it used to be said that if Mr. Ainsleigh had not been a very rich man, he would have been ruined by his bibliomania. But, alas, Orpingdean folks had the vaguest idea of what sums can be squandered on rare old books and exquisite bindings, on Virgils in Italic type, printed at Venice by Aldus Manutius — on early in-folio copies of Erasmus — on a Trésor de la langue latine or a Maison Rustique by Robert Estienne — on a Strawberry-Hill Lucan, or diamond editions by Firmin Didot. We knew that Mr. Ainsleigh’s uncle had left him a handsome fortune, but we did not know that it needs the millions of a Huth or a Van de Weyer to support that expensive hobby-horse on which the book-collector prances. Lord Lytton has most truly said that one hobby is a wife, and that half-a-dozen hobbies are mistresses. Mr. Ainsleigh was faithful to his hobby as ever husband to the partner of his choice. But a man may find his ruin even in a wife, if she happen to be expensive and insatiable.

After the race-ball I saw a good deal of Miss Ainsleigh. My father, and his father and grandfather before him, had been received and liked by the best people in and about Orpingdean. We lived in the town, much to the disgust of my two sisters, who had been “finished” at an expensive Parisian school, and who felt a sense of intense degradation in the near neighbourhood of a coal-yard and a wine-merchant. But in this old house in the High-street there were oaken wainscots and spacious rooms, a square paved hall, and a staircase with such ponderous carved banisters as are rarely seen in modern dwellings; and my father refused to exchange the house in which he had been born for the finest and whitest of those new Italian villas, whose campanile towers twinkled in the sunshine on the hills beyond Orpingdean. My sisters protested that the old house smelt of pens and ink, and marvelled that anybody should be so civil as to visit us in such an odious locality.

People did visit us, however, in spite of the coal-yard, which was exactly opposite our drawing-room windows; and in spite of the wine-merchant, our next-door neighbour, who seemed to make his arrangements with a foreknowledge of the days on which we were to have dinner-parties, so surely did he receive wagon-loads of ponderous cases and bumping hogsheads on that very day and at that very hour in which our guests assembled. My sisters declared that this was his scheme of vengeance against us for not visiting him. “I daresay he will contrive to drop a case of Moet and Chandon some day just as old Lady Hetherside is stepping out of that dilapidated brougham of hers,” said my sister Arabella; “and then she will go about saying that she almost met her death upon our door-step, and no one will ever dare to come and see us again.”

Miss Ainsleigh came to us very often, undismayed by the griminess of the coal-yard, or the bumping of casks and champagne-cases on the pavement before our neighbour’s storehouses. She had been pleased to take a fancy, as it is called, to my sisters, and they were delighted with her beauty and vivacity, I counted for less than nothing in the affair; but I felt, nevertheless, that it was a very nice thing to have sisters; and there was no attraction in Orpingdean strong enough to tempt me away from our spacious, shabby, comfortable old drawing-room, when I knew that Barbara was coming to spend the evening with our girls.

She came very often during the winter and early spring and summer and autumn that succeeded the race-ball, where she renewed her acquaintance with my sisters after their return from the Parisian seminary. Miss Ainsleigh had never been to school. Was she not too precious a creature to be intrusted to the care of strangers? She had been educated under her father’s roof, by an expensive governess, and by masters innumerable, and the process had made her a very accomplished young person; though rather superficial, according to the dictum of my sisters, who had learned Latin, and moral philosophy, and natural science, and a good many “ologies,” which Miss Ainsleigh had not been troubled with.

One of the chief bonds of union between this young lady and my sisters was music. Barbara had a noble mezzo-soprano voice. My sister Arabella had a decent soprano, my sister Louisa an endurable contralto, while I had been endowed with that deep abdominal growl which may be considered either a fine bass or an insufferable nuisance, according to the taste of the listener. It was the fashion at Orpingdean to accept me as a kind of amateur Lablache, and of the execrations that may have been heaped upon me in secret I would rather not think. I was very grateful to Providence for my ability to growl when Miss Ainsleigh came to us; for I was thus enabled to partake in those exercises of the voice which constituted our musical evenings. O, what duets and trios and quartettes we sang in the long winter evenings, while my father nodded behind his newspaper, and my mother nodded over her knitting! What gentle gales we blew, what merry men we uproused, what foxes we assisted in jumping over farmers’ gates, what cool grots we inhabited, with what happy laughter we greeted each other’s mistakes, and how like to the melody of the spheres Barbara’s fresh young voice sounded in the ears of one adoring listener!

Yes, my doom was sealed. From that love at first sight with which I was stricken at the race-ball I might possibly have recovered. Is it not a faculty of youth to be stricken with such sudden fevers, and to recover from them, to lay down its votive wreath at the feet of one divinity to-day, and to pick up the poor frail blossoms, not so very much the worse for wear, and carry them to another shrine tomorrow? This boyish fancy for a beaming smile, and dark tresses crowned with flowers, might have been fleeting as other fancies; but from the love that grew upon me in the quiet progress of our family intercourse there was no such thing as recovery. We had a garden behind the old house in the High-street, a long grass-plot, very excellent for croquet, and a hazel-walk which seemed to have been made for lovers. We heard the bumping of the casks and cases in a long covered yard next door, and on warm summer evenings a faint odour of port or sherry was wont to pervade the atmosphere. But we played croquet indefatigably, nevertheless, in the summer afternoons and evenings, nor did Miss Ainsleigh scorn to join us in that delightful sport, once, and sometimes twice a week all through the croquet season; which, as I take it, extends from the first tolerably fine day in March to the last dry afternoon in October. We walked in the hazel-walk sometimes, Barbara and I, while my sisters and Mr. Dodderly, one of our curates, or Mr. Midvale, his brother in the Church, prepared the croquet-ground, or collected the balls and mallets when the sport was over. The faint stars used to twinkle sometimes in the summer sky above the hazel-trees, and it seemed to me altogether very sweet and very poetical, despite the casks and cases bumping and rolling close at hand, and the odour of fine crusted port that mingled with the perfume of our roses and clematis.

Nothing could have been more trivial and commonplace than our conversation on these occasions. It seemed as if we were trivial and commonplace by choice, for whenever we touched perchance upon any serious subject, — our hopes, our dreams, the things we loved, the plans we had formed for the future, — we both shrank from the topic as if affrighted, and hastened with nervous precipitancy to return to some frivolous discussion about our last discovery in the science of croquet, the new glee we were learning, the curate’s sermon of the previous Sunday, or the popular volume of travels or poems lately received from the book-club.

We loved each other. Barbara must have been dullest among women if she had failed to discover how fondly she was adored; and, without being a coxcomb, I could not choose but assure myself, with unutterable delight, that I was something more than an ordinary acquaintance in the eyes of Miss Ainsleigh. And so summer and autumn went by, and no week passed in which Barbara and I did not meet — sometimes at my father’s house, sometimes at our quiet little Orpingdean dinner and tea parties; sometimes at the old Queen-Anne mansion outside the town, where Mr. Ainsleigh received us whenever we liked to visit him, and where there was a croquet-lawn that had once been a Dutch bowling-green. Barbara’s father was very well pleased that his darling should have found pleasant friends in the immediate neighbourhood, with whom she could beguile the weariness of a country life. He paid us a ceremonial visit one morning in company with his daughter, and expressed to my mother and sisters his satisfaction upon the subject, in a gallant and stately speech. After this he invited our household to a ceremonial dinner, at which we met some of the county magnates, such a dinner as Mr. Ainsleigh only gave about twice a year. He was a man who took very little pleasure in what is called society. The books which lined the walls of every room he lived in were his friends and companions. He existed for them, and he loved them with a complete affection that left no room in his mind for any frivolous attachments. He regarded his daughter with extreme tenderness, and he indulged her every wish with unquestioning alacrity; but whether this beautiful, beaming creature, with the dark hair and blooming cheeks, was quite as dear to him as his Boccaccio on large paper, or his original edition of Urquhart’s Rabelais, is a question I should scarcely like to decide. He loved her, and he allowed her to do exactly as she liked. I have sometimes thought that he might have been a little less indulgent to this charming daughter if his library had not held the first place in his esteem.

And in all these pleasant meetings, in our croquet-parties and musical evenings, our blowing of gentle gales, and uprousing of merry men, how did the future appear to me, Frederick Wilmot, only son and heir to Andrew Wilmot, solicitor, of High-street, Orpingdean? Could I for a moment consider myself a fitting pretender to the hand of Barbara Ainsleigh, beauty and heiress, future possessor of the grand old red-brick mansion, and of the wide-spreading lands appertaining thereto, to say nothing of that funded estate which Mr. Ainsleigh was said to have inherited from his uncle and adopted father, Lucas Ainsleigh? Alas, I was fain to confess that my hopes were of the faintest order.

I knew that my father had begun life with an ample fortune, and that he must have added considerably to that fortune during the many years of a prosperous professional career. I knew that he would admit me into partnership whenever I proved myself worthy of that honour. But what of that? Was it to be supposed that Mr. Ainsleigh would submit to see his daughter the wife of a solicitor in a country town? Would I submit to such a sacrifice, were I the father of such a daughter? I asked myself that question, and replied boldly in the negative. And then I ordered my young hopes — those fair children of the mind — off to execution, and felt myself another Brutus.

Yes; in the future loomed the black shadow of despair. I knew this, and yet was happy. It is so difficult to be unhappy when one is four-and-twenty years of age, and in almost daily companionship with the dear girl one loves. My Barbara’s image filled my mind by day and night; but I worked at my dryasdust labours in the office with a plodding industry that delighted my business-like father. Ah, those simple, middle-aged people, how little they know of the dramas that are being enacted under their very noses! O, how Barbara’s bright image danced between the lines of leases and covenants, deeds of assignment and bills of sale! and how her sweet face peered out at me from the elaborate curves and flourishes of initial letters, like saint or siren in mediaeval manuscript!

Well, it was a sweet dream while it lasted. I was awakened by a crash; terrific as the cannonade that roared without the walls of Brescia when Gaston de Foix mounted barefoot to the breach; or as the simultaneous tumbling of fire-irons that sometimes startled my father from his after-dinner nap.

Christmas was close at hand, and I was looking forward to several parties at which Barbara and I were to meet. The shadow looming in the remote future seemed more than usually remote at this period. My sisters made merry with me on the subject of my devotion to Miss Ainsleigh; for it is the property of sisters to be disagreeably acute upon these occasions. I endured their badinage with good humour; for though they asked me if it was likely that a country-town solicitor could aspire to the hand of a beauty and heiress, their tone seemed to me to imply that they did not think my case utterly hopeless, and I took comfort from their idle discourse.

Miss Ainsleigh made her appearance unexpectedly at our nine-o’clock tea one evening in December, when my father and mother were engaged at on old-fashioned dinner and whist-party. My sisters were chattering by the fire, and I was sitting apart pretending to read, and thinking of Barbara, when I heard a carriage stop in the street below. I hurried to the window, scarcely daring to hope that I should see Miss Ainsleigh’s smart little brougham.

I did see that admired vehicle, and three minutes afterwards Barbara was in the room, shawled and furred, and looking unusually pale in the light of our wax-candles. My father cherished an antipathy to gas, which I have since learned to respect.

“Why, Barbara, this is quite a delightful surprise!” cried my sister Louisa. “Come to my room, dear, and take off your things. Of course you have sent the brougham back?”

“No, dear,” Miss Ainsleigh faltered, in tones very different from those we had been used to hear from her lips. “I can’t stay long to-night. Papa has a friend with him. See, I have come out in my dinner-dress. I made an excuse for leaving papa and his friend to take coffee alone; and no one but Emms and Phillis Trotter know that I have come out. I — I only came to say a few words to you, Louisa, about something that has happened — at home.”

She seemed on the point of bursting into tears, and her grief smote me to the quick. I was hastening to console the object of my adoration, when Louisa hustled her out of the room, and Arabella followed, both girls pleased with the excitement of the situation, and utterly indifferent to my agonies. For half-an-hour I paced the drawing-room in anguish unspeakable; but at the end of that time the three girls returned; and Louisa, who was not such a very obnoxious creature as sisters go, told me that she had obtained Miss Ainsleigh’s permission to tell me the trouble that oppressed her.

“You ought to know almost as much about the law as papa by this time,” said Louisa, “and you can most likely explain poor Barbara’s position.”

“It is not myself I think of,” exclaimed Barbara, half crying. “Poverty would not seem so hard to me; but papa — he is so refined; his tastes are so expensive, — a sudden reverse would kill him. And he will lose all — even his books, perhaps — if that dreadful paper is what it seems to be.”

“Sudden reverse! — dreadful paper!” I implored the young lady to be more coherent.

“I — I have found a will, of my great-uncle Lucas Ainsleigh’s, that makes papa a pauper,” she said; and thereupon produced a yellow-looking document, on a couple of sheets of Bath post.

I was well acquainted with the circumstances of Miss Ainsleigh’s family. William Ainsleigh, her father, had inherited the estate, which was not entailed, from his uncle, by virtue of a will, dated some years before that gentleman’s death, and immediately after his quarrel with his only child, a daughter, who had married a certain James Dashwood, a landscape-painter of some talent, but of no position, against her father’s wish. The young lady and her husband disappeared almost immediately after the marriage. It was supposed they had gone to America, where the painter had friends. Lucas Ainsleigh felt the blow keenly, but preserved an obstinate silence upon the subject of his grief. He publicly announced his intention to leave all he possessed to his eldest nephew, William Ainsleigh, and he executed a will to that effect, which document was drawn up by my father, and remained in his possession till Lucas Ainsleigh’s death.

The will Barbara showed me was dated a week before the testator’s death, the date of which event I perfectly remembered. It was witnessed by a certain Rachel Coles and Andrew Hardwick, both of which names were strange to me. The will seemed a good one. The body and signature were in the same hand. It left the bulk of the testator’s fortune to Margaret Dashwood, late Ainsleigh, — at that time supposed to be living somewhere in the United States — most probably New York, — and to Barbara’s father only five hundred a-year from funded property.

The testator entreated his nephew to pardon this sudden change of resolution. He felt the hour of death approaching; and as that hour drew nearer, his stubborn heart softened more and more to his poor child, and he felt himself bound to make her all possible reparation for his unkindness.

This was the tenor of the document. I read it hurriedly at first, in my excitement, and then carefully, but I could see no legal flaw.

“Where did you find this, Miss Ainsleigh?”

“In a chest of old manuscripts, in the room where my great-uncle died,” replied Barbara. “He was a collector of curious books and manuscripts, like papa, you know; indeed, it was from him papa learnt the taste for these things. It was only this evening I found that dreadful paper. Mr. Lostenwich dined with papa, and after dinner they began to talk about curious manuscripts; and papa said he had a muniment chest filled with very rare papers that he had not even looked at, and amongst them he believed there was a manuscript treatise by Roger Bacon. Mr. Lostenwich said he would like, of all things, to see such a manuscript. Papa was anxious to show it to him; but he has not been very well lately, and, as I knew the search would involve some fatigue, I begged him to let me hunt for the treatise. He consented, after some little discussion, and then gave me a minute description of the manuscript and the chest it was to be found in. I took Phillis Trotter, my dear good little maid, to the room with me, and between us we dragged the muniment chest from the cupboard where it had been kept for ages, as we could tell by the thickness of the dust upon the lid. I found the key upon a bunch papa had given me; and after some little trouble succeeded in opening the chest, and began my search. Phillis held the candle for me while I knelt down to examine the manuscripts.”

“Does Phillis know of this?” I asked, pointing to the will, which lay open before me, and from which I could not entirely withdraw my consideration even while listening to Miss Ainsleigh.

“Yes, Phillis knows. In my first surprise and horror I betrayed everything. But she is the best of good creatures, and will not breathe a word of this business without my permission. I looked over a great many papers, and threw them back into the chest, but I could see no vestige of Roger Bacon’s treatise, with its long Latin name. I was just about abandoning my search in despair, when I saw the indorsement — I think you legal people call it indorsement — of that paper. My uncle’s name, and the words ‘last will and testament,’ excited my curiosity. I opened the paper, and I was in the act of reading it, when the door was opened, and an exclamation from Phillis told me of my father’s coming. He had been alarmed by my long absence, and had left his friend to come in search of me. I threw the will back into the chest, and answered papa’s questions as calmly as I could. I assured him that there was no manuscript of Roger Bacon’s to be found in the chest, and persuaded him to return to his friend and to apologise for my non-appearance. I had recourse to the favourite feminine excuse, a head-ache; and, after sending papa back to the dining-room, I despatched Phillis to order the brougham, for my first impulse was to come to you with this dreadful paper. And O, Mr. Wilmot, does this will really mean anything, and will it reduce papa to poverty, for I fear he has squandered a great deal of money on his books, and has considerably impoverished the estate; and he will have to give all back, will he not, if that paper is binding?”

How could I answer her when she looked at me with such a terror-stricken face, alarmed not for herself — I doubt if she was even conscious that her own interests were at stake — but for the father she loved so fondly!

I was obliged to tell her that to the best of my belief the will was a good one.

“Then I must give it to papa,” she answered sadly. “It would be wicked to keep it hidden for a single day, now that I know the duty it imposes upon us. And papa must give up the Hall, and begin life afresh — I am sure he will make the sacrifice bravely, but I fear it will cost him a broken heart. He loves the old Hall so dearly.”

And then she began to think of the people interested in the newly-discovered will.

“I wonder where my poor cousin is to be found,” she said; “it is nearly twenty years since my uncle died, and it was years before his death that she married Mr. Dashwood and went to America. She never was known to write to any of her relations after leaving England. I have heard papa say that he tried to find her out, in order to help her, after the property became his; but he never succeeded in obtaining any tidings of her. And now all belongs to her, and she will come back to turn my poor father out of his home, and will never know how kindly he thought of her.”

I asked Miss Ainsleigh if she would intrust the will to my keeping until the following morning. She gave me the sweetest and most confiding of smiles as she put the document into my hands.

“Do exactly what seems best to yourself,” she said; “I am sure you will only do what is right and honourable. If you find that the will is really valid, please come to the Hall to-morrow morning, and we will tell papa all about it — between us.”

And thus we parted; I conducted her to her pretty little carriage, and held her dear hand in mine just a little longer than usual as I bade her good-night.

“If you should ever come to be poor, Barbara,” I said, “you will at least know how dearly you are beloved.”

This I could not resist saying. For the first time in my life I had called her Barbara. I felt myself blushing in the darkness; but she did not reprove me.

I lit the reading-lamp on my father’s office-table, and lay in wait for his return. He came at half-past ten, elated by a final “double, treble, and the rub.” I sent my mother up to the drawing-room, where the girls were too full of Barbara’s troubles to care about hearing the menu of the friendly dinner, and I marched my father into the office, where we sat down side by side, and examined the last will and testament of Lucas Ainsleigh.

My father thought as I did. He remembered the names of the two witnesses — both had been old serrants of the testator’s, and both were dead.

“If they had not been exceptionally stupid they would have taken some means to further the carrying-out of their old master’s wishes,” said my father. “But it is just possible, by the way, that Lucas Ainsleigh did not tell them the nature of the document they attested. Some men are so fatally cautious.” The result of our conversation was my appearance at the Hall early next morning, with the dreadful document in my pocket. Barbara came out of her pretty morning-room as the servant admitted me. We stopped on the threshold of Mr. Ainsleigh’s study, whispering together for a few minutes before we went in, and it happened somehow that Barbara’s hand remained in mine while we whispered. I loved her so dearly, I was so sorry for her sorrow, I was so glad to think that her poverty would bring her nearer to me; there was, in short, such a conflict of emotion raging in my breast, that I may surely be forgiven if, in this tremendous crisis, I forgot to release Miss Ainsleigh’s hand.

We went into the study, where the perfume of Russia leather was almost oppressive, and told our story between us, Barbara kneeling by her father’s chair, and caressing the thin white hand that hung listless by his side while we broke the intelligence to him. I never saw anyone more weak and helpless than Mr. Ainsleigh proved himself on this occasion. He seemed almost stunned by the blow.

“I am afraid I have impoverished the estate, Frederick,” he said. “You see the fancies of a bookworm are expensive; and, thinking myself a rich man, I have been somewhat reckless. I should scarcely like to tell you the money I gave for my Decameron. And it was I who bought the Shakespeare — you may remember, perhaps — that was sold at Willis and Sotheron’s three years ago. It is true that at the worst I could sell my books, but it would be hard to part with them. Marcus Aurelius sold all his possessions for the benefit of the State, during that period in which the Germanic war and the pestilence at Rome combined to impoverish the treasury; but he got a good deal of the property back again, nor do we hear of rare manuscripts among the treasures he resigned. And I do not pretend to the nobility of mind displayed by that generous Antonine.”

The bibliomaniac looked round at the grand old folios with a dismal sigh.

“We need not talk about selling your library yet, sir,” I said cheerily. “My father and I are agreed that the will is a good one, but we have yet to discover whether there is anyone alive to claim under it.”

This was a new view of the subject, but it did not inspire much hope in the minds of Barbara and her father.

“My cousin was my junior by some years,” said Mr. Ainsleigh; “she married early, and is likely to have left a large family, — even supposing her to be no longer living.”

“The law has only to deal with facts, you see, sir,” I answered, with unabated cheerfulness. It was, indeed, very easy for me to assume this lively and consoling tone; for my heart was dancing with joy. I knew that Barbara loved me. A very few hours of family trouble seemed to have made us more intimate than a year and a half of croquet-parties and “gentle gales.”

After some little discussion, it was agreed that an advertisement should be drawn up by my father, requesting Margaret Dashwood, or her heirs, executors, and assigns, to communicate with him immediately, personally or by letter; and further offering to reward any person who should produce evidence of the lady’s decease.

“I don’t think that will be much use,” Mr. Ainsleigh said. “If Mrs. Dashwood had come back to England, she would surely have come to this place, where she was born and brought up.”

“We cannot be quite sure of that,” I replied. “The lady may have returned under circumstances of extreme poverty, and may have been too proud to exhibit her altered status in this place.”

“True, true,” sighed Mr. Ainsleigh.

“If there should be no response to that advertisement after it has been inserted a dozen times, on alternate days, we may fairly conclude that neither Mrs. Dashwood nor her heirs are to be found in this country; and I will, with your permission, start immediately for America, with a view to finding them, or sufficient evidence of their decease.”

“You will go to America?” cried Barbara and her father simultaneously.

They both looked at me as the Mends of Theseus may have looked at him when he announced his intention of tackling the Minotaur; but I answered their looks of wonder with a smile.

“Crossing the Atlantic is a very small business nowadays,” I said, “thanks to Cunard. I shall start before the end of January; and in the mean time all you have to do is to make yourself comfortable and wait the issue of events. Things may not be so bad as you think, sir.”

I felt a courage that was almost desperation as I watched Barbara kneeling by her father’s side, and comforting him with tender looks and sweet little half-whispered words and the light caressing touch of her fair hands. Ah, what could not a man achieve for such a woman as that! I felt myself equal to support not only a wife but a father-in-law. Yes, and to find money for Willis and Sotheron into the bargain.

Before I left the Hall that day Barbara and I were solemnly pledged to each other. A detestable man-servant came in with a coal-scuttle just as my sweet girl was melted into tears by the fervour of my devotion. And O, in what a leisurely manner the wretch renewed the fire, and how we stood, self-conscious as unconvicted felons, while he trifled with the poker, and showed himself neat to punctiliousness in his arrangement of the shovel and tongs!

“And do you really mean to say that you are not afraid of my poverty?” asked Barbara, when the execrable creature had gone.

“I mean to say that I was very much afraid of your wealth,” I replied. “I should never have dared to ask the heiress of Ainsleigh Hall to be my wife. It is only the prospect of a change in your circumstances that gives me courage.”

I doubt if my life can give me a happier Christmas than that which followed my interview with Barbara. My father’s advertisement appeared three times a week in the second column of the Times Supplement; but there was no response worthy even of investigation. Mr. Ainsleigh waited the result with suppressed anxiety; while Barbara and I did our best to support his spirits and to restrain our own. He received my offer for his daughter’s hand with resignation, — as if it had been the last stroke inflicted by the Nemesis of his house.

“I will not deny that I had hoped a more brilliant destiny for her,” he murmured. “She is now but a pauper’s daughter, and cannot be too grateful for your disinterested affection.”

I left Liverpool on the 17th of January, and my business upon the other side occupied the greater part of a year. With infinite labour, I hunted out the history of Margaret Dashwood and her husband, together with the history of the two children who had been born to them, both of whom had died unmarried, — one an infant, the other a soldier in the late Civil War. Death had settled all claims that might have been asserted under the will found in the muniment chest. I went back to England late in the autumn, carrying with me ample evidence of the decease of Mrs. Dashwood and her heirs. She died without a will, and on her death the property would have lapsed naturally to her father’s eldest nephew.

Barbara and I are to be married early in the spring. I nobly offered to release her from her engagement; she, in a spirit as noble, refused to be released. Her father is resigned and even happy. There is another Decameron to be sold at Willis and Sotheron’s in the coming spring, of an older and rarer edition than the large-paper copy he has cherished so fondly hitherto; and whether he looks forward with most anxiety to the loss of his daughter or the acquisition of the Decameron is an enigma I shall not attempt to solve.

We are to live at the old Hall, whence I am to trudge to my desk at the office daily. The little preliminary discussions of affairs between my father and Mr. Ainsleigh have revealed the fact that the latter gentleman has contrived to muddle away a great deal of money, and is by no means a rich man. If Mrs. Dashwood or her heirs had been alive to claim the estate, his position would have been a very miserable one.

The good people of Orpingdean, however, believe that I am going to marry a rich heiress, and no doubt have a great deal to say among themselves on the subject of my good fortune.

 

How I Heard My Own Will Read

It was wrong to be led away by Scavenger. Scavenger was the third favourite for the St. Leger; and a sporting prophet of some celebrity, Mr. Mooney Dooem, of Little Hocus-street, London-road, Manchester, assured me, for the moderate consideration of three shillings and sixpence in postage stamps, that if I wanted to do a good thing for myself, the way to set about it was to back Scavenger with all the loose cash I could lay my hands on.

Now, I am not a sporting man, and I don’t know much of horseflesh. If I had met Scavenger drawing a parcels-delivery van, my sense of the fitness of things would not have been jarred by the circumstance; nevertheless, I like a race. Yes, I am passionately devoted to a race. I make a point of taking Mrs. Pettifer to Epsom and Hampton races every spring. I like champagne and lobster-salad. I like to wear a green veil, and to talk to admiring servant-girls at open windows on the dusty road. I used to like chaffing the toll-keeper — one feels so witty in a barouche and pair. I like having my fortune told. I like coming home in the evening with my mind in a pleasing state of uncertainty as to whether it is the day before yesterday or the day after to-morrow; and I like finishing the evening with iced punch, another lobster, and a “frienly rub-r-r-r.”

So I backed Scavenger. On Saturday I gave six to five on him, on Monday I gave five to four on him, and on Tuesday my partner Peck (Peck and Pettifer, solicitors, Gray’s-inn) made me give him seven to three on that abominable brute. Peck always backs the field. He is a cautious man, and never means to marry. He makes unpleasant puns about not wanting to be hen-Pecked. I have laughed at that doleful joke so long from sheer habit, that if I heard it in a funeral sermon I believe I should burst into a loud guffaw; and I give you my honour I never thought it funny in the whole course of my life. I am rather afraid of Peck, if the truth must be told, for I think he looks down upon me. I remember once, after a jovial night we had together, going to the office next morning with a labyrinth of streaky red marks all over my face; and when I told him that I had awoke and found the cat walking over my face, he looked as if he didn’t believe me.

I backed Scavenger; and then it struck me that as Peck was going down to Doncaster for the St. Leger week, I really ought to go too. I could afford the week’s holiday quite as well as Peck, though I was not a single man. So I told Mrs. Pettifer that I must run down to Yorkshire to wait on one of our best clients, who was going to marry his eldest daughter (to somebody else of course), and who required my professional services for the preparation of the settlements. Now I suppose Yorkshire sounded rather vague, for Mrs. Pettifer asked immediately what part of Yorkshire I was going to. I replied, as immediately, Slitherem-on-the-Dwingey. Now I don’t know of any town answering to that name in Yorkshire; but that is no reason there should not be such a place, and I thought the address would be reassuring to Mrs. P.; and so it was. Unfortunately, she wanted me to write it down. I could not have spelt it if you had offered me a million of money; so I told my esteemed Julia Maria that I would write to her the minute I reached Slitherem; and so departed.

That brute Scavenger was nowhere, and my loose cash was jingling in the pockets of the prudent Peck half an hour after the great race. The cup was won by an outsider of obscure lineage, a rawboned chestnut animal with one white fore-leg, which made him look as if he had dressed himself in a hurry and had forgotten to put on his other stocking. Peck had backed him, and came away from the course with his leathern pocket-book distended, as in a dropsy, with bank-notes. I hated him with a deep and undying hatred; but as he asked me to dine with him at the Reindeer, I went.

He is a brute (perhaps I have said that before), but he is, on the whole, a generous brute, and he gave me a very good dinner. They know what a bottle of champagne is at the Reindeer, I can tell you; they can send you up something very creditable in the way of sparkling hock; and if you’ve a fancy for a bottle of old madeira, such as might rival Captain Cook for sea-voyages, don’t be afraid to order it. We had some of that madeira with our fish. We didn’t go into “sparkling” till the next course came in; and when we were tired of champagne, we went in for burgundy. I think it was some time in the fourth course that I was rather annoyed by the very peculiar conduct of a partridge. It began by his sliding about my plate, and persistently eluding my fork; he then dipped — yes, this malicious bird absolutely dipped down, plate and all, as if he were taking a sensation header, or going through a trap in the table-cloth. Next he dodged me — yes, dodged me from side to side; concealed himself behind the bread-sauce to avoid my knife; till on my making a final effort to pinion him with my fork, he took to himself wings and flew away — into Peck’s shirt-front. I believe this gave rise to high words between Peck and me; but I know we afterwards shook hands; and there was something so really touching in our reconciliation that I wept. It was foolish of me to wipe my eyes upon my dinner-napkin, because I thereby introduced foreign particles in the way of crumbs and mustard into those optics, which injured my sight for the rest of the evening; but Peck said my conduct did equal honour to my head and my heart. I think it was in the course of a speech he said this; and I believe he paid me some very high compliments on my professional capacity and unblemished integrity. I felt grateful to him, though he pronounced it “feshnl cpcty” and “nblmshed tgrity,” and I didn’t quite catch his meaning. This, of course, was after the cloth was removed, and we were taking our port and walnuts.

I don’t know what brought Julia Maria (Mrs. Pettifer) so vividly to my recollection at this time, but the image of that injured woman did recur to me, and my feelings got the better of me. I had not acted well towards the wife of my bosom. I had not kept my promise; I had never written to her from Slitherem -on - the - Dwingey; partly because I had not been there, and partly because I did not believe there was any place of that name in the map of England.

How we came to think about the theatre, I don’t know; perhaps it was because we had received a circular from the manager of that place of entertainment, perhaps it was the landlord who suggested the idea, perhaps it was the waiter; at any rate, there was Peck standing with his back to the fireplace (O, what had he been doing to himself to make himself so indistinct and undulating?) — there was Peck, looking at his watch, and saying that it was only half-past nine, and that we might as well go and look in at the theatre.

I don’t know whether earthquakes are indigenous to Doncaster, but that town was certainly agitated by some convulsion of nature on this particular evening; and as the inhabitants appeared quite undisturbed by the phenomenon, I conclude that it was quite a common occurrence.

As to that man who told us the nearest way to the theatre, I hope he may come to an untimely end. Nearest way indeed! “Bear to your left down the street opposite, and then turn sharp round the first corner you come to, into a narrow lane.” I did bear to my left, whereby I bore right into a horse’s mouth, and received a torrent of abuse from a stable-boy riding the quadruped. The lad had been drinking — they will do it at these times! — so I forgave him. Then, as to turning sharp round the corner, did I not turn sharp round the corner, and did I not do the bridge of my nose a serious injury against the brickwork of the corner house? I have never quite understood how we ultimately made our way into the theatre; but I think it was side-ways, because I know something seemed to be taking me into the Market-place, which, as everybody knows, is adjacent to that building. Peck took me into a box near the stage. Peck is a play-going man, quotes Shakespeare and Maddison Morton in his conversation.

I take my family to see the pantomimes every Christmas; beyond that I am not a connoisseur. The play was Hildebrand the Avenger, or the Spectre of the Mount. Peck said it was trash; I thought it interesting. Mrs. Hildebrand was a widow, Hildebrand having been murdered at some remote period. She wore black-cotton velvet, ornamented with spiky embellishments in crochet-work. I knew it was cotton velvet, because it looked brown, and clung around her queenly form as she walked. She also wore pearls in her hair — the correct costume I daresay of widows in the time of Hildebrand the A. She was rather a big woman, and she might have been younger; but she was a model of conjugal propriety; and O, didn’t she annihilate Hildebrand’s bad brother in yellow boots, when he revealed a guilty passion which he had chee-yerished — he pronounced it “chee-yerished” — for a space of some ten or twenty years! Now I should have enjoyed this dramatic entertainment very much, — for I felt a strong interest in the female Hildebrand, and I rather admired Yellow-boots, though he was a consummate villain, and had three supernumerary consummate villains, dressed in green baize and bluchers, always ready to carry out any scheme of a criminal description, — but there was a virtuous steward, who talked a great deal more than anybody else, and who seemed to obtain all the applause. I don’t know how he came to be connected with the partridge that had so aggravated me at dinner; but he — the virtuous steward — was nearly related to that malignant bird, and from the moment he spied me in the corner of the boxes, he made a dead-set at me. Yes, at me! The abominable and abusive language he used, I shall never forget. O, ah! he might pretend he meant it for Yellow-boots (the noble-er Count-er, as he called him); but when he said that “the man who didn’t do so and so deserved the most ignominious treatment,” it was at me he levelled his denunciations, and I felt myself the focus of a whole houseful of indignant eyes. I told Peck of this fact, but he said he had not observed it. Peck never observes anything. I asked my partner if there was anything in my appearance calculated to attract the attention of that obnoxious steward; and P. said I did look rather pale. Suppose I did; was that the virtuous steward’s business or mine, pray? and was I to ask his permission before I turned pale? I felt pale, and I rather fancied I looked interesting: that black ballet-girl with the eyes — I mean that ballet-girl with the black eyes — thought so, to judge by the way she stared at me. Well now, who do you suppose that virtuous steward was? The most experienced playgoer would have failed to fathom that secret That virtuous steward was Hildebrand himself, who had been cleaning his own plate in his own butler’s pantry, and waiting on his own wife, and depriving himself of all the comforts and privileges of his station for ten years; for the sake of keeping his eye on Yellow-boots, who had intended to murder him, but had foolishly intrusted the carrying out of the business to one of the supernumerary villains, who had evidently made a regular fiasco of it. Now, was not that idea charmingly original? I’m sure, when the virtuous steward threw off a white beard and a black cloak (how ever did he clean his plate or draw his corks in that cloak?), you might have heard a pin drop. I did distinctly hear the wire springs of the beard when it fell on the stage. And then there was such a burst of applause! And then poor Yellow-boots (he was a handsome young man, and would have been graceful if he had only been more settled in his ideas as to what he should do with his arms) was led away by his own minions, with a view to instantaneous execution. Perhaps he had been behindhand with their wages, for they really seemed glad to do it.

How ever it came about, I don’t know; but all of a sudden we were behind the scenes. It was very dark, and there were a good many stairs, and somebody tumbled down, and I hurt myself. Peck knew the manager; and it was by some occult and back-stairs influence on the part of Peck that we had gained admittance to those sacred precincts. And there was Yellow-boots dressed in the costume of private life, smoking a meerschaum-pipe, and playing dominoes with the virtuous steward. My first impulse was to strangle the V.S., on account of those abusive remarks he had made about me; but Peck said I had better not; and then I found that I actually had a strong feeling of friendship for the V.S., and that I should respect and admire him to my dying day.

I think presently the manager wanted to turn me out, because I was something that began with a d, and disorderly, I knew that I was a model of gentlemanly propriety, and that the remark was the emanation of an envious mind; so I did not resent it. But Peck told the manager I was a jolly good fellow, and as quiet as a lamb when I was something that began with an s; and he invited the manager to come and sup with us at the Reindeer, which the manager consented to do.

They gave us a spatch-cock and curried lobster for supper; and this time we tried the sparkling moselle, quite a lady’s wine, and not the sort of stuff to get into your head, especially if you laid a good foundation of old dry sherry and bitter beer, as I did. Wasn’t that manager a glorious fellow too? And couldn’t he sing a comic song too? And did not Peck and I join in the chorus? O, it was such a song! There were seven murders and nine ghosts in it; and really, though you were ready to expire with laughing while you heard it sung, it was not the sort of thing to think of afterwards when you found yourself alone in the dark.

After supper I proposed the manager, with all the honours; and the manager proposed Peck and me, with all the honours; and we drank the theatrical profession, out of compliment to the manager; and the manager proposed the law, out of compliment to Peck and me. Did he not make a witty speech about landsharks and bilge-water? I believe it was extracted from the drama of Black-eyed Susan; but the manager passed it off as original. And then Peck returned thanks in a speech that was positively affecting; and then we drank the ladies — not that there were any present, but the fair sex in general; Peck said, the black-eyed ballet-girl in particular: but of course Peck is a single man. And then we went to the station.

Yes, we went to the station, though I don’t particularly remember how we went. We had been to bed, of course, because it was six o’clock to-morrow morning, and there we were at the station. We might have had a cab, or we might have walked down and carried our carpet-bags ourselves — I can’t say which; but I am ready to make an affidavit that it was six o’clock A.M., and there we were on the platform. How that clerk we took our tickets from came to be my second cousin Mary Jane Thomas’s husband, who died when I was a little boy, I don’t know; but Mary Jane T.’s husband he was; and what’s more, I was not in the least surprised to see him. Neither did I perceive anything incongruous in the conduct of the manager, though, on my turning round to wish him good-bye, he all at once grew so like my great aunt Storkins — Aunt Storkins was in trade once, and no Pettifer ever would notice anybody connected with trade — that I could have taken him for that elderly individual, if I had not known all the time that he was the manager as well.

Talk of a long journey! I conclude we went express, because we didn’t stop anywhere; but, upon my honour, it seemed to me as if we began that journey in the period of the old red sandstone, and didn’t reach our destination till the reign of Queen Victoria. Eons and eons seemed to pass away, and still that Wandering Jew of an express-train tore onward on its interminable course; and there was Peck sitting opposite me eating sandwiches the whole time. He wasn’t always Peck, by the bye; sometimes he was Earl Russell; once he was the Emperor Nero, with a faint tinge of Mr. Alfred Tennyson, but there was an under-current of himself perceptible all the time.

How we came to pass Bagdad I don’t know, unless it was through the stupidity of the engine-driver; but I remember somebody pointing to a city which seemed to be constructed of brick-and-mortar pepper-boxes and fish-sauce bottles with tall stoppers, and which Peck declared to be that ancient capital of the Saracenic Caliphs. In spite of everything, we reached London by half-past ten A.M.; and before I knew where I was, I found myself opposite my own door, No. 4 Montefiasco-villas, Denmark-hill.

When I say my own door, I am bound to add that at first I could hardly believe it to be my own door; for of all the stylish funerals I ever remembered seeing, the most stylish was just starting from No. 4 Montefiasco-villas. Such ponderous mutes! I knew the grief depicted in their rubicund faces could not have cost a trifle. Such feathers! I clung convulsively to the palings, for my thoughts reverted to Julia Maria. I remembered the guilty deception which had attended my departure from home, and I felt a conscience-stricken man.

Our parlour-maid Mary was standing at the garden-gate, gaping after the dismal cortège. I gasped out, “Whose funeral? Not your mistress’s?”

“No, sir; master’s.” Yes; she said it quite distinctly; “master’s.”

“Stop a minute,” I said. “Collect yourself, Mary; you may have been availing yourself of a false key to the cellaret. Calm yourself, my good girl, and try back. Whose funeral?”

“Master’s, sir. Fatal collision” (she said “klision) “on the Slitherem-on-the-Dwingey Railroad. Poor Mr. Pettifer brought home on a shutter!”

Slitherem-on-the Dwingey. The girl had the name of that mysterious vicinity as pat as I have my A B C, — perhaps patter.

I was a little thrown off my moral equilibrium, but I was not going to give way; so I said, “Don’t you know me, Mary?”

The girl stared at me with that vacuous expression peculiar to the lower classes.

“I never saw you before, sir, to my knowledge.”

This was too much. I strode past the girl, and up the gravel-walk; but she stopped me, and said she didn’t think her mistress would see a stranger to-day. I used bad language; I said “Fiddlesticks’ ends!” And I went into the house.

She told me, this pert menial, to wipe my shoes on my own mat, that I might not injure my own carpet; and she looked at me, when she showed me into my own drawing-room, very much as if she thought I might mean to purloin some of my own nicknacks.

There was a newspaper on the table. I took it up mechanically. It was the Slithererm-on-the-Dwingey Chronicle and Monday Morning Advertiser. Good gracious me! this Slitherem-on-the-Dwingey — a place the very name of which I believed to be an emanation of my own brain, devised to pacify Mrs. Pettifer — seemed to have sprung into life by some mysterious agency, and to have become a flourishing city. The paper was full of advertisements, which plainly showed that Slitherem was a populous place. One column was marked with a long black streak, evidently the work of a soft quill-pen. I read that column. It was a detailed account of the fatal accident on the Dwingey-Junction line, between the stations of Slitcherem and Slopeydregon, — I never invented Slopeydregon; that place was a frightful reality, — and of the subsequent death of Mr. Augustus Pettifer, solicitor, of Gray’s-inn, from injuries received therein.

Yes; there were the full particulars. The engine had run off the bank, and I, with several other passengers, had been precipitated into a field at some distance from the railroad, fearfully mutilated. Fearfully mutilated! Yes; that was the expression.

The door opened, and admitted Julia Maria Pettifer, in tears and a widow’s cap. In mourning for me! Things were really growing unpleasant. “Julia Maria!” I was about to exclaim; but I had scarcely enunciated the J before she interrupted me by burying her face in her pocket-handkerchief with a sound as of choking.

I felt very awkward; here was I expected to console my own wife for my own loss. After an embarrassing pause of some moments, Julia Maria emerged from behind the pocket-handkerchief. I don’t know what she had been doing, but her eyes were not at all red. I took a note of that.

“Ah, sir,” she said, “you perhaps were a friend of the dear departed.”

Well, I flattered myself I was.

“But,” I ejaculated, “Ju—”

She stopped me short at the Ju.

“In that case,” she said, “I am sorry you did not arrive in time to attend the funeral. There was a vacant place in one of the carriages. Mr. Spivins had the toothache, and couldn’t come.”

O, Spivins had the toothache, had he! and it was too much trouble to attend my funeral! I took another note of Spivins’s toothache — I had lent Spivins money.

“But as you were a friend of the dear departed, you may like to hear the will read,” continued my wife. “It will be read in the dining-room at one o’clock. You would perhaps wish to be present; you may be interested.” Having said which, she went back into the pocket-handkerchief and out of the room.

Now what did it all mean? That was the question I put to myself. What did it all mean? Could it be possible that any impostor had had the impertinence to be killed on the Dwingey Junction in my name, brought home to my house on a shutter, and had even carried his audacity so far as to go and be buried in my coffin in my family vault in Norwood-cemetery? I had been induced to purchase a family vault by Julia Maria, though really I had thought it a foolish investment, because of course if I died, somebody must bury me, or if they did not choose to go to that expense, it would be their look-out.

One thing may strike the reader as rather singular, — it struck me in that light myself, — namely, that I didn’t explain myself; that I didn’t say to Julia Maria, “Take off that widow’s cap, and put that absurd handkerchief in your pocket, and draw the blinds up. For this is me; and I never went to Slitherem-on-the-Dwingey in my life, and consequently never came home on a shutter;” and so on. The fact is, that I was continually trying to say these very words, and I continually couldn’t. This failure I attributed to two causes. First, the pain at my chest — O, such a pain — a weight, an oppression! I don’t suppose anybody ever had an Atlas omnibus, full inside and out, settled on their lungs; but only a person who had laboured under such a disease could form a just estimate of my sensations. Secondly, really, what with the parlour-maid’s asseverations, Julia Maria’s mourning, and the graphic account of the accident in the newspaper, I was in a manner beginning to believe in Slitherem-on-the-Dwingey. Suppose I had been killed? Suppose I had been brought home on a shutter, and didn’t know it? There was an awful situation!

I pinched myself; it was painful. There was a fire in the grate; I laid hold of the bars; that was painful, very, and I believe I swore; but O, it was such a comfort to feel that I was mortal, that I could have blessed anybody for treading upon my pet corn.

It was a nice thing to be asked into my own dining-room to hear my own will read. There was Peck, in a suit of black, with ebony death’s-heads for studs, — he always had a playful fancy, — sitting in one of my morocco chairs at the top of my patent telescopic dining-table. He seemed to have forgotten all about Doncaster. I tried to recall it to his recollection, but a temporary paralysis of the vocal organs prevented me.

I suppose our dining-room must have been built on some newly-invented expanding principle, because it certainly was not as large as Exeter-hall when I left home; and in the matter of cubic feet it decidedly had the advantage of that edifice now.

It was really edifying to sit and hear how I had disposed of my property. There was a picture I rather prided myself upon — a Titian, a genuine Titian. The man I bought it from said it was, and of course he ought to know. Now, I had bequeathed this picture to Peck; Peck was not a bad fellow on the whole, and had stood my friend once or twice with Julia Maria after our Masonic dinner in Great Queen-street; and what do you think was Peck’s remark on reading the passage in my will which made him possessor of this gem? “Poor fellow!” he said; “I appreciate his kind feeling; but he wouldn’t have known a Reynolds from a Morland, and he always considered Michael Angelo and Buonarotti two distinct artists. The thing is the vilest daub that ever came out of Wardour-street.” I tried to express my indignation, but another touch of paralysis was too much for me, and I took another note. Peck — daub — Wardour-street. I had learnt Beniowski’s system of artificial memory, and I checked off those three heads on the fire-irons.

After the will was read, we all gathered round the fire, and we really became quite sociable. Mary the parlour-maid brought in a tray of decanters. Didn’t the wine go to work! — my ’48 port in particular. I don’t know who it was that suggested smoking; but we all looked at each other; and presently someone — I think it was Peck — said there was a box of poor Pettifer’s cheroots in the sideboard drawer, and as it wasn’t likely he would ever smoke them, we might as well blow a cloud. And so there was I, thanking Peck for one of my own cigars.

Our conversation was very melancholy at first; but presently we became a little more resigned; afterwards we grew quite cheerful; and at last, upon my word, we were almost uproarious. Peck told one of his best stories. I knew it by heart, and I laughed in the wrong place, and he scowled at me. I did it on purpose. Ha, ha! that vengeance at least was within my power.

It was very pleasant, too, to be taken by the button and told a good story about myself, the point of which was, that I had made a consummate fool of myself; and I think if Peck told me one such story, he told me six; and what’s more, I laughed — yes, I actually laughed.

I think it was Peck proposed that as we’d had a very melancholy morning, we should run down to Greenwich and take a bit of dinner at the Crown and Sceptre — of course in a quiet way. “We shall find plenty of hansoms at Camberwell-green,” said Peck; and off we went.

Now, when I say off we went, I mean to say off they went, for I did not go; and yet I wanted to go, and yet I kept continually trying to go, and yet I continually seemed to be going; but go I did not. Go I did not; for the substantial macadam of Denmark-hill transformed itself all in a moment into the airy nothingness of the Goodwin-sands, and I felt myself suddenly going down, down, down into a fathomless gulf, like another Edgar Ravenswood.

Two broken wine-glasses, a plate of oyster and lobster shells, a play-bill, a candlestick, and my boots! When I opened my eyes at the bottom of the fathomless gulf, these were the articles which met my bewildered gaze. They were on the table above my head; my feet were in the boots, and I was lying on the floor of that apartment in the Reindeer in which Peck, the manager, and I had partaken of supper prior to my hearing my own will read. I was lying on my back on the floor, with my feet on the table above me; and that is not a pleasant attitude in which to abandon oneself to slumber. I had one corkscrew, two balance-handle knives, and the neck of a champagne-bottle exactly under the small of my back. Those trifles did not add to the comfort of my position; and when I tell you that my head was against a sharp corner of the fender, and that I found the heel of the manager’s varnished boot planted upon my chest, you will not perhaps wonder that I had assisted at the reading of my own will.

Yes, it had been only a hideous dream, after all; and there was the manager, asleep in an easy-chair, with my chest for a footstool, and looking quite aggravatingly comfortable. There was Peck too in another easy-chair, with a pocket-handkerchief over his face, looking still more aggravatingly comfortable. We had a splendid breakfast, plenty of soda-water and green tea, and started (it really was to-morrow) by the afternoon express-train; and at eight o’clock in the evening I was seated before the social board, quaffing with Mrs. Pettifer the cup that cheers and does not do the other thing, in the sacred shelter of my own home.

I told her a good deal, if I did not tell her exactly all; and never again, Julia Maria, never again! No more Slitherem-on-the-Dwingeys, no more St. Leger stakes, no more Scavengers, no more Reindeers, and no more last wills and testaments. No; we will go to Epsom in the spring-time of the coming year, and hob and nob out of our modest bottle of moselle, as a steady married couple should do.

But, dream or no dream, I mean to revenge myself upon Peck for his impertinence about that picture.

 

The Scene-Painter’s Wife

“You wouldn’t think it, to look at her now, sir,” said the old clown, as he shook the ashes out of his blackened clay; “but madam was once as handsome a woman as you’d see for many a long day. It was an accident that spoilt her beauty.”

The speaker was attached to a little equestrian company with which I had fallen in during a summer day’s pedestrianism in Warwickshire. The troupe had halted at a roadside inn, where I was dawdling over my simple mid-day meal; and by the time I had smoked my cigar in his companionship, the clown and I were upon a footing of perfect friendliness.

I had been not a little struck by the woman of whom he spoke. She was tall and slim, and had something of a foreign look, as I thought. Her face was chiefly remarkable for the painful impression which it gave to a stranger. It was the face of a woman who had undergone some great terror. The sickly pallor of the skin was made conspicuous by the hectic brightness of the large black eyes, and on one cheek there was a scar—the mark of some deadly hurt inflicted long ago.

My new friend and I had strolled a little way from the inn, where the rest of the company were still occupied with their frugal dinner. A stretch of sunny common lay before us, and seemed to invite a ramble. The clown filled his pipe, and walked on meditatively. I took out another cigar.

“Was it a fall from horseback that gave her that scarp” I asked.

“A fall from horseback! Madame Delavanti! No, sir; that seam on her cheek was made by the claws of a tiger. It’s rather a curious sort of story, and I don’t mind telling it, if you’d like to hear it; but for the Lord’s sake don’t let her know I’ve been talking of her, if you should happen to scrape acquaintance with her when you go back to the inn.”

“Has she such a dislike to being talked about?”

“I rather think she has. You see she’s not quite right in the upper story, poor soul; but she rides beautifully, and doesn’t know what fear means. You’d scarcely believe how handsome she looks at night when she’s dressed for the ring. Her face lights up almost as well as it used to do ten years ago, before she had the accident. Ah! she was handsome in those days, and used to be run after by all the gentlemen like mad. But she never was a bad lot, never—wild and self-willed, but never a wicked woman, as I’ll stake my life. I’ve been her friend through thick and thin, when she needed a friend, and I’ve understood her better than others.

She was only twelve years old when first she came to us with her father, a noted lion-tamer. He was a man that drank hard now and then, and was very severe with her at such times; but she always had a brave spirit, and I never knew her to quail before him or before the beasts. She used to take her share in all the old man’s performances, and when he died, and the lions were sold off, our proprietor kept a tiger for her to perform with. He was the cleverest of all the animals, but a queer temper, and it needed a spirit like Caroline Delavanti’s to face him. She rode in the circus as well as performing with the tiger, and she was altogether the most valuable member of the company, and was very well paid for her work. She was eighteen when her father died, and within a year of his death she married Joseph Waylie, our scene-painter.

I was rather surprised at this marriage, for I fancied Caroline might have done better. Joe was thirty-five, if he was a day— a pale sandy-haired fellow, not much to look at, and by no means a genius. But he was awfully fond of Caroline. He had followed her about like a dog ever since she came amongst us, and I thought she married him more out of pity than love. I told her so one day; but she only laughed, and said,—

“He’s too good for me, Mr. Waters, that’s the truth. I don’t deserve to be loved as he loves me.”

The newly-married couple did indeed seem to be very happy together. It was a treat to see Joe stand at the wing and watch his wife through her performances, ready to put a shawl over her pretty white shoulders when she had done, or to throw himself between her and the tiger in case of mischief. She treated him in a pretty, patronizing sort of way, as if he had been ever so much younger than her, instead of twelve years her senior. She used to stand upon tiptoe and kiss him before all the company sometimes at rehearsal, much to his delight. He worked like a slave in the hope of improving his position as he improved in his art, and he thought nothing too good for his beautiful young wife. They had very comfortable lodgings about half a mile from the manufacturing town where we were stationed for the winter months, and lived as well as simple folks need live.

Our manager was proprietor of a second theatre, at a seaport town fifty miles away from the place where we were stationed; and when pantomime time was coming on, poor Joseph Waylie was ordered off to paint the scenery for this other theatre, much to his grief, as his work was likely to keep him a month or six weeks away from his wife. It was their first parting, and the husband felt it deeply. He left Caroline to the care of an old woman who took the money, and who professed a very warm attachment for Mrs. Waylie, or Madame Delavanti, as she was called in the bills.

Joseph had not been gone much more than a week when I began to take notice of a young officer who was in front every evening, and who watched Caroline’s performance with evident admiration. I saw him one night in very close conversation with Mrs. Muggleton, the money-taker, and was not over pleased to hear Madame Delavanti’s name mentioned in the course of their conversation. On the next night I found him loitering about at the stage door. He was a very handsome man, and I could not avoid taking notice of him. On inquiry I found that his name was Jocelyn, and that he was a captain in the regiment then stationed in the town. He was the only son of a wealthy manufacturer, I was told, and had plenty of money to throw about.

I had finished my performance earlier than usual one night soon after this, and was waiting for a friend at the stage-door, when Captain Jocelyn came up the dark by-street, smoking his cigar, and evidently waiting for some one. I fell back into the shadow of the door, and waited, feeling pretty sure that he was on the watch for Caroline. I was right. She came out presently and joined him, putting her hand under his arm, as if it were quite a usual thing for him to be her escort. I followed them at a little distance as they walked off, and waited till I saw Joe’s wife safe within her own door. The captain detained her on the doorstep talking for a few minutes, and would fain have kept her there longer, but she dismissed him with that pretty imperious way she had with all of us at times.

Now, as a very old friend of Caroline’s, I wasn't going to stand this sort of thing; so I taxed her with it plainly next day, and told her no good could come of any acquaintance between her and Captain Jocelyn.

“And no harm need come of it either, you silly old fellow,” she said. “I’ve been used to that sort of attention all my life. There’s nothing but the most innocent flirtation between us.”

“What would Joe think of such an innocent flirtation, Caroline?” I asked.

“Joe must learn to put up with such things,” she answered, “as long as I do my duty to him. I can’t live without excitement, and admiration, and that sort of thing. Joe ought to know that as well as I do.”

“I should have thought the tiger and the horses would have given you enough excitement, Caroline,” I said, “without running into worse dangers than the risk of your life.”

“But they don’t give me half enough excitement,” she answered; and then she took out a little watch in a jewelled case, and looked at it, and then at me, in a half-boastful, half-anxious way.

“Why, what a pretty watch, Carry!” said I. “Is that a present from Joe?”

“As if you didn’t know better than that!” she said. “Country scene-painters can’t afford to buy diamond watches for their wives, Mr. Waters.”

I tried to lecture her, but she laughed off my reproaches; and I saw her that night with a bracelet on her arm which I knew must be another gift from the captain. He was in a stage-box, and threw her a bouquet of choice flowers after her scene with the tiger. It was the prettiest sight in the world to see her pick up the flowers and offer them to the grim-looking animal to smell, and then snatch them away with a laugh, and retire, curtseying to the audience, and glancing coquettishly towards the box where her admirer sat applauding her.

Three weeks went by like this, the captain in front every night. I kept a close watch upon the pair, for I thought that, however she might carry on her flirtation, Joe’s wife was true at heart, and would not do him any deliberate wrong. She was very young and very wilful, but I fancied my influence would go a long way with her in any desperate emergency. So I kept an eye upon her and her admirer, and there was rarely a night that I did not see the captain’s back turned upon the door of Mrs. Waylie’s lodgings before I went home to my own supper.

Joe was not expected home for another week, and the regiment was to leave the town in a couple of days. Caroline told me this one morning with evident pleasure, and I was overjoyed to find she did not really care for Captain Jocelyn.

“Not a bit, you silly old man,” she said; “I like his admiration, and I like his presents, but I know there’s no one in the world worth Joe. I’m very glad the regiment will be gone when Joe comes back. I shall have had my bit of fun, you know, and I shall tell Joe all about it; and as Captain Jocelyn will have gone to the other end of the world, he can’t object to the presents—tributes offered to my genius, as the Captain says in his notes.”

I felt by no means sure that Joseph Waylie would consent to his wife’s retaining these tributes, and I told her as much.

“O, nonsense,” she said; “I can do what I like with Joe. He’ll be quite satisfied when he sees Captain Jocelyn’s respectful letters. I couldn’t part with my darling little watch for the world.”

When I went to the theatre next night, I found the captain standing talking to Caroline just inside the stage-door. He seemed very earnest, and was begging her to do something which she said was impossible. It was his last night in the town, you see, and I have very little doubt that he was asking her to run away with him—for I believe the man was over head and ears in love with her—and that she was putting him off in her laughing coquettish way.

“I won’t take your answer now,” he said very seriously. “I shall wait for you at the door to-night. You can’t mean to break my heart, Caroline; the answer must be yes.”

She broke away from him hurriedly. “Hark,” she said, “there’s the overture; and in half an hour I must be upon the stage.”

I passed the captain in the dark passage, and a few paces farther on passed some one else whose face I could not see, but whose short hurried breathing sounded like that of a person who had been running. We brushed against one another as we passed, but the man took no notice of me.

Half an hour afterwards I was lounging in a corner of the ring while Caroline went through her performances with the tiger. Captain Jocelyn was in his usual place, with a bouquet in his hand. It was New-Year’s night, and the house was very full. I had been looking all round for some time, when I was startled by the sight of a face in the pit. It was Joseph Waylie’s face, ashy pale and fixed as death—a face that meant mischief.

“He has heard something against his wife,” I thought. “I’ll run round to him directly I can get out of the ring, and make matters square. Some confounded scandalmonger has got hold of him, and has been poisoning his mind about Caroline and the captain.” I knew there had been a good deal of talk in the theatre about the two—talk which I had done my best to put down.

Captain Jocelyn threw his bouquet, which was received with a coquettish smile and a bright upward glance that seemed to express profound delight. I knew that this was mere stage-play; but how must it have looked to the jealous man, glaring with fixed eyes from his place at the back of the pit! I turned to look at him as the curtain fell upon the stage, but he was gone. He was going round to speak to his wife, no doubt. I left the ring immediately, and went to prepare her for the interview, and, if needful, to stand between her and her husband’s anger.

I found her at the wing, trifling with her bouquet in an absent way.

“Have you seen Joe?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “He hasn’t come back, has he? I didn’t expect him for a week.”

“I know, my dear; but he was in front just now, looking as pale as a ghost. I’m afraid some one has been talking to him about you.”

She looked rather frightened when I said this.

“They can’t say any harm of me, if they speak the truth,” she said. “I wonder Joe didn’t come straight to me though, instead of going to the front of the house.”

We were both wanted in the ring. I helped Caroline through her equestrian performance, and saw that she was a little nervous and anxious about Joe’s return. She did not favour the captain with many more smiles that evening, and she told me to be ready for her at the stage-door ten minutes before the performance was over.

“I want to give Captain Jocelyn the slip,” she said; “but I daresay Joe will come to me before I’m ready.”

Joe did not appear, however, and she went home with me. I met the captain on my way back, and he asked me if I had been seeing Mrs. Waylie home. I told him yes, and that her husband had come home. Joe had not arrived at the lodgings, however, when Caroline went in, and I returned to the theatre to look for him. The stage-door was shut when I went back; so I supposed that Joe had gone home by another way or was out drinking. I went to bed that night very uneasy in my mind about Caroline and her husband.

There was an early rehearsal of a new interlude next morning, and Caroline came into the theatre five minutes after I got there. She looked pale and ill. Her husband had not been home.

“I think it must have been a mistake of yours about Joe,” she said to me. “I don’t think it could have been him you saw in the pit last night.”

“I saw him as surely as I see you at this moment, my dear,” I answered. “There’s no possibility of a mistake. Joe came back last night, and Joe was in the pit while you were on with the tiger.”

This time she looked really frightened. She put her hand to her heart suddenly, and began to tremble.

“Why didn’t he come home to me?” she cried, “and where did he hide himself last night?”

“I’m afraid he must have gone out upon the drink, my dear.”

“Joe never drinks,” she answered.

While she stood looking at me with that pale scared face, one of our young men came running towards us.

“You’re wanted, Waters,” he said, shortly.

“Where?”

“Upstairs in the painting-room.”

“Joe’s room!” cried Caroline. “Then he has come back. I’ll go with you.”

She was following me as I crossed the stage, but the young man tried to stop her.

“You’d better not come just yet, Mrs. Waylie,” he said in a hurried way that was strange to him. “It’s only Waters that’s wanted on a matter of business.” And then, as Caroline followed close upon us, he took hold of my arm and whispered, “Don’t let her come.”

I tried to keep her back, but it was no use.

“I know it’s my husband who wants you,” she said, “They’ve been making mischief about me. You sha’n’t keep me away from him.”

We were on the narrow stairs leading to the painting-room by this time. I couldn’t keep Caroline off. She pushed past both of us, and ran into the room before we could stop her.

“Serve her right,” muttered my companion. “It’s all her doing.”

I heard her scream as I came to the door. There was a little crowd in the painting-room round a quiet figure lying on a bench, and there was a ghastly pool of blood upon the floor. Joseph Waylie had cut his throat.

“He must have done it last night,” said the manager. “There’s a letter for his wife on the table yonder.—Is that you, Mrs. Waylie? A bad business, isn’t it? Poor Joseph!”

Caroline knelt down by the side of the bench, and stopped there on her knees, as still as death, till the room was clear of all but me.

“They think I deserve this, Waters,” she said, lifting her white face from the dead man’s shoulder, where she had hidden it; “but I meant no harm. Give me the letter.’’

“You’d better wait a bit, my dear,” I said.

“No, no; give it me at once, please.”

I gave her the letter. It was very short. The scene-painter had come back to the theatre in time to hear some portion of that interview between Captain Jocelyn and his wife. He evidently had believed her much more guilty than she was.

“I think you must know how I loved you, Caroline,” he wrote; “I can’t face life with the knowledge that you’ve been false to me.”

Of course there was an inquest. We worked it so that the jury gave a verdict of temporary insanity, and poor Joe was buried decently in the cemetery outside the town. Caroline sold the watch and the bracelet that Captain Jocelyn had given her, in order to pay for her husband’s funeral. She was very quiet, and went on with the performances as usual a week after Joe’s death, but I could see a great change in her. The rest of the company were very hard upon her, as I thought, blaming her for her husband’s death; and she was under a cloud, as it were; but she looked as handsome as ever, and went through all her performances in her old daring way I’m sure, though, that she grieved sincerely for Joe’s death, and that she had never meant to do him wrong.

We travelled all through the next summer, and late in November went back to Homersleigh. Caroline had seemed happier while we were away, I thought, and when we were going back, she confessed as much to me.

“I’ve got a kind of dread of seeing that place again,” she said; “I’m always dreaming of the painting-room as it looked that January morning, with the cold light streaming in upon that dreadful figure on the bench. The room’s scarcely been out of my dreams one night since I’ve been away from Homersleigh; and now I dread going back as if—as if he was shut up there.”

The room was not a particularly convenient one, and had been used for lumber after Joe’s death. The man who came after him didn’t care to paint there by himself all day long. On the first morning of our return, Caroline went up and looked in at the dusty heap of disused stage furniture and broken properties. I met her coming away from the room.

“O, Mr. Waters,” she said to me with real feeling, “if he had only waited to hear me speak for myself! They all think I deserved what happened, and perhaps I did, as far as it was a punishment for my frivolity; but Joe didn’t deserve such a fate. I know it was their malicious talk that did the mischief.”

I fancied after this that her looks changed for the worse, and that she had a kind of nervous way in going through her equestrian performances, as if there was a fever upon her. I couldn’t judge so well how she went through the tiger act, as I was never on the stage with her, but the brute seemed as submissive as ever. On the last day of the year she asked our manager to let her off for the next night. “It’s the anniversary of my husband’s death,” she said.

“I didn’t know you were so preciously fond of him,” he answered with a sneer. “No, Mrs. Waylie, we can’t afford to dispense with your services to-morrow night. The tiger act is one of our strong features with the gallery, and I expect a full house for New Year’s night.”

She begged him very hard to let her off, but it was no use. There was no rehearsal on New-Year’s morning, and she went to the little cemetery where Joe was buried, a three miles’ walk in the cold and rain. In the evening, when she came to the wing, her eyes were brighter than usual, and she shivered a good deal, more than I liked to see.

“I think I must have caught cold in the cemetery to-day,” she said to me when I noticed this. “I wish I could have kept this night sacred—this one night—to my husband’s memory he has been in my mind so much to-day.”

She went on, and I stood at the wing watching her. The audience applauded vociferously, but she did not make her accustomed curtsey; and she went about her work in a listless way that was very different from her usual spirited manner. The animal seemed to know this, and when she had got about half-way through her tricks with him, he began to respond to her word of command in a sulky unwilling manner that I didn’t like. This made her angry, and she used her light whip more freely than usual.

One of the tiger’s concluding tricks was a leap through a garland of flowers which Caroline held for him. She was kneeling in the centre of the stage with this garland in her hands, ready for the animal’s spring, when her eyes wandered to the front of the house, and she rose suddenly with a shrill scream, and her arms outstretched wildly. Whether the sulky brute thought that she was going to strike him or not, I don’t know; but he sprang savagely at her as she rose, and in the next moment she was lying on the ground helpless, and the audience screaming with terror. I rushed upon the stage with half-a-dozen others, and we had the brute muzzled and roped in a few breathless moments; but not before he had torn Caroline’s cheek and shoulder with his claws. She was insensible when we carried her off the stage, and she was confined to her bed three months after the accident with brain-fever. When she came among us again, she had lost every vestige of colour, and her face had that set look which you must have observed just now.

“The fright of her encounter with the tiger gave her that look,” I said; “I don’t much wonder at it.”

“Not a bit of it,” answered the clown. “That’s the curious part of the story. She didn’t think anything of her skirmish with the tiger, though it quite spoilt her beauty. What frightened her was the sight of her husband sitting in the pit, as he had sat there a year before, on the night of his death. Of course you’ll say it was a delusion, and so say I. But she declares she saw him sitting amongst the crowd—amongst them, and yet not one of them, somehow, with a sort of ghastly light upon his face that marked him out from the rest. It was the sight of him that made her drop her garland and give that scream and rush that frightened the tiger. You see she had been brooding upon his death for a long time, and no doubt she conjured up his image out of her own brain as it were. She’s never been quite the same since that fever; but she has plenty of pluck, and there’s scarcely anything she can’t do now with Baber the tiger, and I think she’s fonder of him than of any human creature, in spite of the scar on her cheek.”


THE END

Project Gutenberg Australia