Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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This collection of nineteen stories was published without Oppenheim's authorisation. When he read the announcement of the new book in The Athenaeum, he wrote the following letter to the Editor:
"Sheringham, Norfolk, July 20, 1912.
"I am astonished to find that in your issue of July 20th Messrs. Ward, Lock & Co. announce, under the heading of 'New Six-Shilling Fiction,' a volume entitled 'Those Other Days,' of which I am the author.
"The volume in question consists of a considerable number of short stories, written by me some fifteen or twenty years ago for various newspapers and weekly periodicals.
"They are published now without my consent, knowledge, or benefit; and while the publishers, having acquired the copyright of these most ephemeral productions, are no doubt within their right in issuing them, I protest most strongly against their being alluded to under the heading of 'New Fiction.'
"I trust that you will give this statement of facts the same prominence as the misleading announcement referred to.
"E. Phillips Oppenenheim."
—The Athenaeum, July 27, 1912
Six of the tales in this collection ("My Dreadful Secret," "An Unlucky Rehearsal," "A Mad Christmas," "The Quarry on Old John Hill," "An Aristocratic Socialist," and "A Shocking Mésalliance") were first published in The Windsor Magazine in the early 1900's. Copies of the original Windsor Magazine illustrations have been included in this e-book edition. Copies of the illustrations for "Their Prison-House," which was first published in The English Illustrated Magazine in May 1899, have also been included. —RG.
Only a few days ago, whilst turning over a musty collection of aged volumes, I came across an old philosophical treatise—a translation from the German—and as I carefully turned over its pages, preparatory to throwing it aside, I stumbled across an idea which struck me forcibly. The writer, for the purpose of following out some argument, was ignoring the possibility of any future state, and was emphasizing the idea that in a human life happiness and unhappiness are far more equally balanced than the cursory observer would credit or imagine. If a man was afflicted with great trials, he was either gifted with great religious faith or fortitude of disposition sufficient to annihilate them, or they were followed or preceded by a period of corresponding happiness. Desires and dispositions were most often in accord with the local surroundings of the person, and that altogether the principles of happiness were founded upon a retributory basis, evil and good, happiness and unhappiness, existing in proportionate quantities, and giving place to each other at regular intervals.
As I close the volume, I half unconsciously applied this idea to my own life, and I saw at once how close was the correspondence. For I who write this tale am now one of the happiest men on earth, whereas not many years ago I was assuredly one of the most miserable. Is it not a feasible idea that the calm happiness which now fills my life has come to me as compensation for a period of utter and intense misery; so intense that, even now, after many peaceful years have passed away, I can scarcely look back upon those other days without a shuddering remembrance of their hideous wretchedness?
This is the story of my great unhappiness. I had left college but two years, and had flung myself into my profession with all the energy and devotion which youth and love of my following could inspire. I was an artist, member of a profession which above all others can fan the impetuous zeal of youth into the blazing fire of ambition, such dazzling prizes it offers, so easy appears to the sanguine temperament of youth their acquisition. As I bent over the easel in my tiny studio, its narrow precincts would oftentimes expand before me, the brush would fall from my hands neglected to the floor, and I would pace the room with flashing eyes and swelling heart, without a glance at my deserted work, full of bright visions and daring hopes, which soon became to me precious food for my imagination, fondly cherished and jealously kept to myself, while day after day I worked with unremitting toil at the masterpiece which was to be the stepping-stone to my fortunes.
I was well-nigh alone in the world, for I was an orphan. My father died when I was still quite young, and him I cannot clearly remember; but my mother lived until I was eleven years old, and faint memories of her I can and do often recall. She had many trials, poor woman, but never once do I remember seeing a frown on her face or hearing an angry word from her lips. She bore all her troubles with a fortitude and cheerful resignation rare indeed in women, and which still command my wondering admiration whenever I reflect upon them.
Ours was an unhappy childhood. My father, though of good family, and, I believe, of high attainments, was not a successful man, and at the age of forty, when he died, was only the vicar of a small country village, out of the living of which—barely three hundred a year—he had not been able to save a single penny. Disappointment and poverty had soured his once sweet temper, and the latter years of his life were years of discomfort and unhappiness to us all, particularly to his long-suffering wife, who had to bear, and did bear, without a murmur the exacting whims and fretful disposition of a disappointed and, I fear, selfish man.
With his death ceased our only regular income, and henceforth life became a perpetual struggle to my poor mother, who nevertheless—partly by her own efforts and partly by the aid of her brother-in-law, our only surviving relation—managed to bring us up in respectability and even in comfort; so much so, indeed, that the dim memories which I still have of this period of my childhood are far from unhappy ones. I had only one sister, a year younger than myself, and when—worn out with her struggles, but peaceful and cheerful to the end—my mother died, we felt what it was to be alone in the world.
My uncle, with whom we went to live, was a student, and almost a hermit, and took but little notice of us children, who grew up under the care of a nurse with better results than might have been expected, for she was a conscientious and good woman. Then one day our increasing heights seemed to remind him of the necessity of some change in our mode of living, and all that evening, contrary to his custom and greatly to our discomfort, he remained with us in the sitting-room, silent and absorbed as usual. Just as our bed-time was approaching an idea occurred to him, and he started up from his easy chair, from the depths of which he had been silently contemplating us for the last hour and half, to our infinite wonder and embarrassment.
"Children, it is time you went to school," he declared solemnly. "I wonder I never thought of it before;" and the knotty problem solved, he retired to his study to resume his accustomed labours, leaving us to discuss eagerly this coming change in our lives.
We went to school—Lizzie to London, I to a public school of no secondary standing. I have nothing particular to say about those days. I did not distinguish myself particularly either in the class-room or the cricket-field, and the only study which really interested me was drawing, the rudiments of which I rapidly acquired. When I had reached the age of eighteen, I received the following characteristic letter from my uncle:—
"ELMHURST, October 22.
"MY DEAR VERNON—I see by the family Bible that you are now eighteen years old, and it occurs to me that you are of an age to form some definite idea as to your future. I reproach myself that I have not seen more of you, especially at the present time, for I begin to feel my strength leaving me, and though I have been for a long while ailing, the doctor's as well as my own reason tells me that the end is at hand. The little property I have is left to you, and out of it you will have to provide for your sister—at any rate, until she marries. It is not much I have to leave you, barely three hundred a year; but you will be able to live on it, and that you may do so profitably is my sincere wish. It is time for you now to leave school, and I should wish you, whatever profession you may choose to follow, to spend the next two years, at least, at college. I am but little competent to advise you as to your future, for my own life has been in many ways a failure. But I remember always that you come of an old family, whose name has never been sullied by trade, and do not seek to amass wealth by unworthy means, or by pursuing an unworthy avocation. You will, doubtless, be sought after by many at college; for, from reports I have of you, I gather that you possess no little of your father's good looks. But do not waste your time there in sports and the other pursuits of the rich; for remember that you have your own future to carve out and your way to make in the world. Follow out the course of reading which you may deem the most serviceable to you in the avocation which you decide to embrace, and let it be not too strict, but let there be a due, not undue, admixture of recreation, lest you become merely a useless bookworm like myself. Be careful of your health, and do not share the dissipations of those who will perforce be your associates; and, above all things, be careful with whom you enter into friendship. Be not too ambitious at this early stage of your life, lest in grasping at the shadow you lose the substance. Do not decide hurriedly upon your future, but when you have fully made up your mind in what direction your abilities and desires lead you do not be tempted by initiatory failure to try some other career, but persevere; and may the blessing of an old man, who might have been a better guardian to you, assist you.
"Your affectionate uncle,
When I had read this letter I determined to travel down into Wiltshire on the very next day and see my uncle, for those few words concerning his illness convinced me that unless I did so at once I should not see him again. But by the next post came another letter in a strange handwriting and with an ominous black seal, and a few days later Lizzie and I, the sole mourners, stood beside the grave of well-nigh the only relation we had in the world.
After the funeral we held a brief discussion as to our plans for the future. Lizzie was four years older than I, and we were at that time as different both in appearance and manners as brother and sister could well be. She possessed to the full extent her mother's evenness of temper and unselfishness of disposition, and she was quite content to stop on at Elmhurst, my uncle's old home, now ours, with an old housekeeper, her sole companion, whilst I went up to Oxford for the two years which my uncle had prescribed.
Those two years passed, at any rate, harmlessly for me, if without any special benefit. I increased my classical knowledge considerably, but the greater part of my time was given to the prosecution of the hobby which was fast becoming a passion with me. I looked eagerly forward to the time of my leaving college, when I should have a studio of my own; for I had determined, it is needless to say, to become an artist, and with my thoughts so engrossed it was a matter of wonder to me that I succeeded in taking my degree.
When the two years had elapsed, I easily persuaded Lizzie to let Elmhurst, and come to live with me near London. We took a small house near Sydenham, and then at last my impatient longings were gratified—I commenced work in a studio of my own. For twelve months we lived here quietly, I gaining fresh hopes every day, only to despair again when I wandered in to gaze at the masterpieces exhibited at the Academy and at the National Gallery, and compared them with my own poor work. And yet when I was back again, and alone in my little studio, hope would return with all its vigour, flinging fresh fuel on the fire of my imaginings, and I would deem again that all was within my reach, and that work, hard, unceasing work, could not fail in time to bring me the success I coveted.
Alas! the work in which I trusted to bring me fame brought me instead a terrible misfortune—the misfortune to which I have already referred. I fell ill, almost to death, and then, with scarcely any warning, the fairest gift of life was taken from me. For, after weeks of half-unconscious pain and suspense, there came upon me in the night a sudden darkness, which the light of day could not dissipate, and there crept upon me a horrible suspicion that I was blind. I could not believe it at first. I cried out in my anguish that it must be some terrible nightmare, a passing faintness—anything but the horrible truth. I besought them, with my voice choked with sobs, to tell me that it was not true, but I heard no encouraging voices bid me hope, only the sound of a woman sobbing quietly by my bedside, and answering my piteous appeals with evasive tenderness. Then I fell back on my pillows worn out and miserable, and prayed to God that I might die.
For many weeks afterwards my life hung upon a thread, and I felt that I cared no longer whether it should snap or no. What was there now which could make life precious to me? Nothing, absolutely nothing! Longing visions and fond dreams of success in my art, these had been the sole thoughts of my existence, the end and aim of all my exertions. The world had held no attraction which could win my thoughts for one moment from them, no happiness save in dreams of their consummation. As a blind man, I had no desire to live.
Nevertheless, Fate decreed that I should recover from the fever which had brought me to the very verge of death, and slowly there came back to me my strength and faculties; all save the one I most coveted—my sight. Ah! the misery of those re-awakening hours, when every day I felt strength mustering in my body, and still that horrible darkness before my eyes. I fear that in that first period of my convalescence I acted little like a man, for I often turned my face to the wall, and first wept, then cursed and swore at all who sought to comfort me.
Then there came over me a dull lethargy—a passive resignation, which from its very contrast to my former state made my nurses uneasy. The doctor, too, seemed disturbed at my slow progress, and counselled an immediate change of scene. So that, in about a week's time, despite my petulant protestations, we removed to a quiet little watering-place on the Norfolk coast. I was woefully ill and weak, and every little incident of the journey impressed upon me my utter impotency to such an extent that I cried aloud in the carriage, and when we reached our journey's end I was very nearly in a relapse. Contrary to my expectations, however, almost to my wishes, the air of the place soon had a wonderful effect upon me. At the end of the first week the bath-chair was dispensed with, and, leaning on Lizzie's arm, I could walk down the crazy narrow street, and along the esplanade, on to the cliffs, where the strong sea-breeze blowing full in my face brought strength and vigour, which, alas! I felt I cared little for now.
At first I could not be persuaded to take any interest whatever in my surroundings; I would do nothing more active than sit and brood, in gloomy silence, on my ruined hopes and cheerless future. Those must have been very dull days for Lizzie, poor girl, but she never complained, and seldom left me for an hour. I was anything but a cheerful companion, for often during a whole morning we would sit at the end of the little pier (to which the sea comes occasionally) without speaking a word, she intent on her book or embroidery, I apparently dozing, but really nursing my bitter thoughts of a future which, from a fairyland of promise, had suddenly become a cheerless and dismal blank.
Several weeks we spent in this fashion, while I slowly mended in health, and by degrees with the bodily improvement came some slight improvement in my spirits. I knew that I should please Lizzie if I appeared to take some slight interest in our surroundings; and one morning, for her sake, I asked some questions and exhibited some curiosity about the little place, and by the tone of her answer I knew that she was pleased. She laid down her knitting (we were sitting at the end of the little pier) and described the place minutely; told me of its little cluster of grey stone houses with red tiles, quaintly built, and nestling, as if for protection from the ever-encroaching sea, round the fine old church, which reared its lofty spire from amongst them like a veritable tower of protection. She told me of its narrow streets, without footway; of the rude flights of steps which led from the little town on to the pier or beach, and of the unpretending esplanade, with the green bank behind covered with daisies and dandelions. And then she spoke of the high cliffs with growing enthusiasm, stretching away on either side, covered with soft springy turf, and here and there with bracken, along which one could walk for miles, meeting full the strong salt breeze, and getting many pleasant views of the sea, wondrously blue, rippling in the little coves below. And she told me too of the white lighthouse, built on a hill of green turf, which swept its strong light at nighttime far away over the glistening waters below.
And as she spoke of all these places I conjured up to myself fancies as to how they really looked, and amused myself by arranging them together in my thoughts, like a picture, until I almost fancied, leaning idly against the end of the jetty and turning my sightless orbs towards the town, that I could really see it stretched out before me just as she had described it; and, strange to say, from my well-nursed fancies of it the place seemed to grow familiar, and a sort of affection sprang up within me for it. Almost I fancied, as I stood there, that I could in truth see as she had described them—the dingy-looking building exactly opposite me, with the words Hotel de Paris sprawling along the front; the little plot of deserted lawn in front of it, with a few easy chairs and camp-stools placed carelessly about for the old people to repose in while they dozed, and blinked, and read their papers; and the wicket-gate leading from it unto the esplanade; and the crazy wooden steps which led down to the sands. From frequent and vivid description all these dwelt in my memory, and I built up for myself in my mind ideas as to their appearance and effect, until the whole became as a familiar picture to me, in which I took a keen and almost childlike interest. Ah, well I many and many a time have I visited Cromer since those few months of my convalescence. I have stopped at that old-fashioned but comfortable hotel, and spent many happy days upon those bracken-covered cliffs, drinking in the strong, exhilarating sea-breeze, than which there is none purer in England. I have climbed up the steep little hill to the lighthouse, and admired from its summit over and over again the picturesque little town nestling in the hollow below, with the blue sea stretching up to its very feet, and laughed at the old wooden jetty dignified with the name of pier, most useful as a protection from the sun's rays to the loungers on the sands below. Also have I joined in the little crowd who at half-past ten block up the narrow little street opposite the post-office, awaiting the morning papers; and I have been one of the old fogies who have sat on the neglected lawn in front of the hotel, and have read my paper, and dozed, and blinked, and gazed at the blue sea stretching out before me, steeped in a quiet, passive enjoyment incomprehensible to the younger spirits. A quiet, dull hole I have heard the place often called, and no doubt with a certain amount of reason; but I love it, and am blind to its imperfections, partly because it was here I first found consolation from my terrible trouble, partly because the place itself is pleasant to me, and partly—but I must reserve my other reason until my story is told.
Time slipped quietly away, and every day my convalescence became more and more assured; and with my returning bodily strength I grew somewhat more reconciled to the fact of my existence. True, the future seemed still a hopeless blank; but I was content for the time to abandon myself to the luxury of breathing the fresh, pure air and feeling the strength stealing once more into my frame, and I spent the long summer days lying about on the cliffs, or beach, or sitting on the pier, while Lizzie would read to me such books as I approved. The daily papers I forbade. The world's events possessed but little interest for me, for I deemed myself outside it altogether. Neither did I care for novels, and for the first time in my life found pleasure in poetry, although Lizzie was at best but an indifferent reader; and in such manner the time passed away.
One morning there came a change into our quiet life. Lizzie had left me for a few minutes on the pier while she went into the little town to execute some trifling commission. She was gone longer than I expected, and I began to get impatient, for solitude was my bête noire, bringing, as it naturally did, reflection—reflection which could not fail to engender sad thoughts which I fain would banish and keep away. Just as I was growing fretful and uneasy, I heard her voice as she descended the steps, and, to my surprise, she was talking to some one who appeared to be accompanying her, and then I heard them turn on to the pier, and I knew without doubt that my sister had a companion. My first impulse was not of surprise—although it might well have been, for I knew that Lizzie was reserved and adverse to chance acquaintances—but rather of keen and selfish annoyance. Lizzie knew that I hated strangers, and, over-sensitive in those early days of my trouble, liked nothing so little as sympathy or condolence, however gently expressed. I had all the whims and tempers of a spoilt child then; and when I heard them coming towards me, I turned my head obstinately away, and, leaning over the wooden railing with folded arms, assumed an attitude of deep abstraction.
"Vernon," my sister said pleadingly, laying her hand timidly upon my shoulder, "I have met an old school friend;" and I was perforce bound to turn my head.
"My brother Vernon—Miss Ellis. You have often heard me speak of Margaret Ellis, Vernon; this is she."
I raised my hat, muttering some half-inarticulate words intended to convey my pleasure at so unexpected a rencontre. In reality, I was annoyed—sulky, she has since told me, laughingly. Then she spoke in a soft, musical voice, which, despite my ill-humour, gave me keen pleasure to listen to; for since my blindness every day my hearing seemed to grow more sensitive.
"I was quite delighted to meet your sister just now, Mr. Harpenden," she said, "for I am almost alone here, and Cromer is such a very quiet place isn't it?"
I assented, but not in words; and she continued rather nervously—
"Liz has been telling me of your illness, and of its effect. I am very sorry."
I muttered something conventional, and then we all three sat down and talked, rather constrainedly at first; but soon my ill-humour vanished, and I began to find it very pleasant to listen to that low, melodious voice—so pleasant that I was actually sorry when lunch-time came; and when we parted at the top of the steps, with arrangements to meet in the afternoon, I was in better spirits than a few hours before I could have believed possible.
Margaret Ellis, my sister's old school friend was, like us, an orphan, and, like us, a poor one. She had come to Cromer with an aunt, who was a confirmed invalid, seldom leaving her room: to whom we were, indeed, introduced, but whom we seldom saw. And as she, Mrs. Ellis, preferred the attentions of her maid, who had lived with her all her life, to her niece's nursing (execrable taste I), Margaret had a great deal of time on her hands, most of which she spent with us. And we welcomed her—Lizzie because they were old friends, and I because her coming was a pleasant change, so pleasant, indeed, that my worst and most irritable days soon became those on which we saw her least often. As a rule, she would join us soon after breakfast, and then would come the question, "Pier, sands, or cliffs?" Generally in the morning we chose the latter; and as I lounged on the soft turf, and bared my head to catch the pure, sweet breeze, listening the while to Margaret's musical voice as she read aloud to us, I began to feel that life might still, under some circumstances, be endurable. What those circumstances involved I did not pause to think. I had had enough of thought and misery for a while, and I gave myself up to the enjoyment of the present without a single thought of the future, without caring to realize fully the consciousness, which now and then faintly troubled me, that it was an unseen presence which made the days go by so happily.
One day I startled Lizzie by asking her to describe her friend. She laid down her knitting and considered for a moment.
"Well, I scarcely know how to describe her," she began.
Of course not. How is it, I wonder, that a woman can never describe another woman? If she does attempt the task, she gives it you disconnectedly and without enthusiasm, until it all sounds like a police description of a missing person. I had not the slightest desire to listen to such.
"I only want to know the colour of her hair and eyes," I told Lizzie. And these I soon learnt: soft grey eyes and lightish-coloured hair.
"You could scarcely call her beautiful," Lizzie continued, "but she is certainly interesting."
I turned away to hide a smile. Not call her beautiful! I knew better, and could positively describe her better than Lizzie. True, I was blind; but the blind, to make up for their loss of sight, have generally a keen development of the other senses, enabling them to lay hold of trifles which would escape an ordinary person, and by piecing them together to arrive at conclusions mostly correct. I knew that Margaret was tall by her voice, and I could tell that she was graceful by her regular, even movements. Then her voice was in itself a charm, and fell always like music upon my sensitive ears, lulling me into a strange repose at times, and at others fiercely quickening my weak pulse. It possessed for me a curious fascination, which I cannot and never could describe—a sort of animal magnetism which drew me to her, and when it ceased still seemed to haunt me, and render me as conscious of her presence as if she was still speaking. In my imagination I drew her portrait with scrupulous exactitude, and so I carried always in my fancy a distinct and vivid idea of her personality. It amused me to discover each day by careless questionings what she wore, and then, when she had left us, to lean back, and, dosing my eyes, to clothe my fancy portrait of her as she had appeared that day; and in time I grew to prefer one style of dress for her, and laughingly she would humour my whim and adopt the style which pleased me best. And so the days passed away with us, bringing little change or variation; as, indeed, we needed none, for I believe the quiet life satisfied us all.
One morning Margaret came down to us on the pier earlier than usual, and from her excited manner it was not difficult to surmise that something had happened. A great oculist had come down to Cromer for a day or two, and was stopping at the Hotel de Paris; and Margaret, who had heard of his arrival, was eager for me to consult him, for my own doctor had counselled me to seek some more competent judge than he directly I was strong enough to bear the excitement.
Dr. Holdsworth was a specialist of great renown, and directly Margaret mentioned his name I determined to seek him at once, although I had but little hope of any good coming from it. Silently we all three walked down the pier and up the steps to the door of the hotel, and there they left me. My hand touched Margaret's for a moment as we parted—only for a moment—but I felt that she was trembling, and a sudden, strange thrill of joy passed through me, and made me for a short while almost forgetful of my errand; and then there followed with a rush a fierce intense longing to know my fate, and somehow I felt that a new interest depended upon the verdict I had come to gain. The hall-porter who appeared to answer my ring conducted me into a tiny apartment called the smoking-room, and, carefully placing a chair for me by the open window, took my card and a message and left me to seek Dr. Holdsworth. The minutes that elapsed before the door again opened seemed like long hours to me, waiting with feverish excitement to know my fate. I heard merry voices from the room above me, and through the open window came laughing speeches and quick retorts, to which I listened eagerly, with straining ears, leaning out of window and grasping the stone sill with my moist hands till they were all bruised and cut. Then my attention was diverted to a child playing on the lawn with battledore and shuttlecock, and I counted earnestly the number of times the shuttlecock fell with dull thud upon the racket, beginning again each time that a cessation of the sound and a burst of childish laughter announced that the feathered ball had fallen outside the player's reach. My brain seemed on fire. I wondered where I was, what I was waiting for, whether it was not all a dream, and in nervous desperation I struck myself a blow, and pinched my arms until they were black and blue, feeling at the time no pain. Then a horrible idea crept over me. I thought that I was a criminal in a prison cell, waiting to be led forth to die, and I put my hands up to my neck, almost fancying that I could feel the rope around it, and then, just as with an effort I smothered a shriek, the door opened, and with it my self-possession returned like a flash. I rose and bowed. I apologized to Dr. Holdsworth for intruding upon him, and stated my case with all the calmness of a third party, although I felt that he was watching me keenly. He listened courteously, and then, turning me towards the light, examined both my eyes with a small instrument. Then he moved away and rested the instrument upon the table, returning slowly to my side; and though I knew that the examination was over, my quivering lips refused to frame the question I fain would ask. He did not keep me very long in suspense, though, but said, in tones which seemed to me almost brutally matter-of-fact—
"I am sorry, but I can do nothing for you. Your case is perfectly hopeless."
I had told myself that I would be prepared for the worst, but, despite my efforts, hope had lingered strong within me. With whom does it not linger, I wonder, however desperate their strait? The criminal, condemned to die, even on the morning of his execution is not without lingering vestiges of hope. A reprieve may come at the last moment, the rope may break, something may happen to delay the dread finale; and who would grudge him the consolation of this faint but precious hope? There are men whom we meet in every-day life carrying behind a smiling face and placid exterior burdens utterly disproportionate to their strength, and only one thing keeps them alive and gives them strength to do it—hope, hope: to us human beings who, like myself, have passed through a furnace of trouble, the greatest gift, the one inestimable boon vouchsafed us by a considerate and merciful dispensation. The hard-worked man of business, the student, the politician, the invalid, the anxious mother, have each their trouble lessened and their lot made endurable by this most precious gift. Even if the hope be fallacious, its realization impossible, for pity's sake tell them not so; still with weary hearts but smiling faces they will struggle on, if not with equanimity, with their sufferings allayed and chastened by the fond hopes they cherish.
Oh, the misery with parting with that hope, of having it torn away by ruthless hands, and being left unaided to fight with a terrible, overmastering misfortune! That one ray of light extinguished, all seems dark. Without hope, life, a thing of light and promise to others, to us becomes a meaningless chaos, devoid of interest, and which we feel may pass around us and over us, but in which we have no participation.
Alas for me when I heard those fatal words! For the hope which, despite myself, had lingered within me, and which only one hour ago had been fanned into a blaze, was now utterly crushed and extinguished, and I also was one of those from whom the light of life had been taken.
Slowly I rose, pressed upon Mr. Holdsworth a fee, which he declined, and groped my way towards the door.
"One moment, Mr. Harpenden," said the doctor, and I paused on the threshold. "I have told you that your case is hopeless, and so, in truth, I believe it. But I think that it is only right to inform you that there is a German, Herr Dondez, who professes to be able to cure cases of glaucoma, such as yours. Frankly, I tell you I don't believe it," he continued; "but if you have plenty of money to throw away, you might go over and see him. It would do you no harm, at any rate."
"His treatment involves considerable expense, then?" I asked.
"It does. His fees are enormous, and his course of treatment necessitates heavy expenditure. It would probably cost you a thousand pounds."
The gleam of returning hope was but transitory and at the doctor's words it fled. I thanked him and dismissed the subject from my mind at once. A thousand pounds was as far out of my reach as one hundred thousand. For even had I been able, which I was not, to touch the principal of our little fortune, and had the chances of success been much greater, I should have hesitated long before I risked so large a share of our income on an issue so doubtful.
Dr. Holdsworth followed me from the room, and guided me down the hall to the steps of the hotel, and outside in the street I found Lizzie and Margaret waiting for me. They asked no questions, so I suppose my face told them as much as they wished to know; and, slipping my arm through Lizzie's, we all three turned silently away and walked down the esplanade towards the cliffs. Lizzie was crying quietly, and once I fancied that I heard a low sob from the other side; but though I strained my ears I heard no repetition of it, so it might have been fancy. When we turned on to the cliffs I was glad to lie down and rest for a while; but we none of us cared to break the silence, and slowly the morning passed away with scarcely a word from any one. Woman is a consoling angel, no doubt; but when there is no hope, what consolation can she whisper? And with such a terrible trial as mine staring me in the face, what could they say to comfort me? So silently and sorrowfully the morning passed away, and after lunch, for the first time since Margaret had commenced to spend all her time with us, I did not propose starting to meet her; and Lizzie, seeing that I made no movement, stayed in also. Sorrows seldom come alone, and side by side with mine loomed another, almost as hard to bear as the loss of sight; for I knew now that I loved Margaret Ellis, and my love must be buried. Not for worlds would I have made her unhappy by telling her of my folly; and besides, what would be the use? That she did not know it as yet I was assured, for until I had gone in to learn my fate from the famous specialist I had not known it myself. It had come upon me like a sudden revelation as I felt her trembling hand, and for the moment had made me madly happy, then wildly excited, as I had realized that the verdict which I went in to hear would decide whether or no I might try to win her; and the verdict had been given against me, and I had come out from that interview with crushed hopes and with my heart well-nigh broken, for in those few moments the happiness of my life had been staked and lost.
Henceforth I must exist—living I could no longer call it—without sight, without my beloved art, and without Margaret. Could man's lot be harder? I asked myself bitterly. To lose the woman I loved and the art I worshipped, to be left without either hope for the future or consolation for the present, to pass through life an outsider, never participating in its joys and pleasures, a hindrance and encumbrance to others, a miserable man myself! Ah! who can depict or realize the wretchedness, the utter misery, of the prospect before me?
Towards evening I roused myself a little and called Lizzie to me. I told her what Dr. Holdsworth had said about the German specialist, and for a moment she brightened up and urged me to sell out our little fortune and make a bold bid for happiness. But I argued with her that in case of failure, and failure was almost certain, we should be poverty-stricken for life, which, in justice to her, must not be; and I told her Dr. Holdsworth's opinion of this man's capacities, and in the end she was convinced, as also was I against my will, that it would be money thrown away to no purpose. Then I came to the most difficult part of what I had to say, but unwittingly she helped me.
"And Margaret?" she whispered timidly. Then I knew that she had divined my secret.
"I must not see her," I said hoarsely, turning my head away; for, man though I was, the horror of that day had all unwrought me, and there were tears in my eyes. I was ashamed that Lizzie should see them, and I motioned her away; but I was too late, and I felt her little hand steal into mine, and her arm around my neck, as with her voice all unsteady with sobs she tried to comfort me.
"Oh, Vernon, it is cruel!" was all that she could falter out; and then she burst into tears, while I—why should I be ashamed to acknowledge that the tears which fell into her handkerchief were not all hers, for I, too, was weeping like a child?
By degrees I recovered myself, and after the fit was over I felt more like myself than I had done since the final blow had fallen. I drew Lizzie to me, and took her hand in mine.
"I want to say a few words about Margaret, Liz. You won't ask me any questions, there's a dear girl, but just do as I ask you? We must get away from this place as soon as possible. Do you understand?"
"To-morrow morning you had better go to meet her as usual, and say that I am not well, that I preferred remaining indoors—anything. You can leave her soon and come back to me. You can easily make some excuse not to meet her in the afternoon; and, above all, Liz, be careful not to let her guess at the real reason why I wish to avoid her. Promise me that."
She promised, but not in words, for her eyes were still wet with tears. After that we had tea, and in the evening she read to me, and from her reading I derived little pleasure. After Margaret's wonderful voice hers seemed harsher and more uneven than ever, and I was glad when she laid the book down and proposed going to bed. I slept little that night, and on the morrow, after breakfast, felt no inclination to go out, so, as we had previously arranged, Lizzie started out alone. Before she left I made her write a telegram to my doctor in London, asking him his opinion of Dr. Holdsworth as an eye specialist, and also asking him whether he knew anything of the German, Dondez. Then I got her to write a few lines to a distant connection of my father's, an old bachelor, whom we had never seen, telling him the circumstances of my case, and asking him for the loan of a thousand pounds. Needless to say, I scarcely expected an answer to this last letter.
Long before Lizzie returned came the answer to my telegram:—
"Holdsworth first in Europe on eye; believe other man a quack."
Damning confirmation this of my own conclusions.
At lunch-time Lizzie returned, and, having nothing to conceal from her, I asked eagerly whether she had been with Margaret.
Yes, she had been with her, was all she told me at first; and when I questioned her further she did not immediately reply, but throwing her arms around my neck sobbed out:
"Oh, Vernon! are you sure that you are doing right?"
"Quite," I answered firmly. "Tell me, what did she say?"
My sister dried her eyes slowly.
"She said nothing, Vernon; but I think that she was hurt. We need not hurry away, after all, unless you like, for she is leaving this week."
Leaving! The news was like a stab to me; and yet I knew that it was best so, and, in my calmer moments, I prayed that we might not come across her again during our rambles. Fate decreed otherwise, however; for a few mornings later Lizzie left me for a few moments by the low railing above the pier while she went into the post-office to get some stamps. She had scarcely been gone a moment when I heard a light footstep crossing the esplanade towards me, and my heart stood still for a moment and then beat madly. The footsteps stopped, and I knew then full well who it was stood beside me, but I affected ignorance and toyed carelessly with my stick. But it slipped out of my trembling fingers and rolled out of my reach.
She picked it up and gave it to me.
"Good-morning, Mr. Harpenden." And then I pretended a little start, as if just aware of her presence, and held out my hand.
"Good-morning, Miss Ellis." Not long ago I had called her Margaret without reproof; and when I had wished her good-morning, for the life of me I could think of nothing else to say, and so we stood for nearly a minute in silence.
"Just in time to wish me good-bye," she said lightly, though I fancied that there was a tremor in her tones. "We are going away in half an hour."
"Indeed!" and I ventured to hope that she had enjoyed her visit, feeling all the time as though I were playing with the words.
"Yes, I enjoyed the first part," she said frankly, "I have been very dull the last day or two. Have I offended you, I wonder, Mr. Harpenden?" she said hesitatingly. "If so, I am sorry."
"Offended me? Of course not!" I answered, leaning forward and listening eagerly for Lizzie's returning footsteps. "I have not been in the humour for any one's society but my own the last day or two. I am sorry if I have kept Liz away from you."
"There was no other reason why you wished to avoid me?" she asked in a low tone; and I felt that if Lizzie did not come back at once I was lost.
"Of course not," I answered brusquely. "What a time my sister is buying those stamps!"
I could tell in a moment that it was she who was offended now, but I did not care so long as she left me without discovering my secret.
"Shall I find her for you?" she asked coldly; and, as I bowed my head, she turned and left me. Soon they came up together to where I stood, and after a minute or two's desultory conversation, a messenger from the hotel summoned Margaret. The omnibus was waiting, she must come at once; and so, with a hurried good-bye, she left us, and we heard the omnibus roll away. She was gone, and silently, hand in hand, Liz and I returned to our seat on the cliffs.
Three weeks after Margaret had left Cromer, we also packed up our things and returned to London. So long as she had been there the place had possessed a sort of fascination for me, and although the last few days had been spent in planning to avoid her, I had no wish to leave. Directly she had gone, however, I began to find the place intolerable, and longed to get away. The weather, too, turned colder, and afforded a good excuse, and so we went back to our cottage at Sydenham. Margaret lived with her aunt near Manchester, so there was no chance of meeting her in London; and for my part I was glad, for, although she was seldom absent from my thoughts, I carefully impressed upon myself the fact that our meeting again could bring me nothing but keener unhappiness. She wrote to Lizzie occasionally, but Lizzie never read the letters to me; indeed, by mutual, though unspoken, consent, we avoided even the mention of her name. None the less, however, did she dwell in my thoughts, nor could any effort of mine drive away the remembrance of those happy days at Cromer. Perhaps the first month or two after our return to London was the most unhappy period of my life, for from the moment that Dr. Holdsworth had pronounced his verdict I had lost all hope, and my existence became a trial to myself, and also, I fear, to Lizzie. Every day was but a stereotyped repetition of the preceding one, the only thing to look forward to being its close, that I might retire and console myself with the morbid reflection that another twenty-four hours of my wretched existence had passed away. My sole wish was to die as quickly as possible. With every pleasure in life denied me, was it any wonder that such was my great desire? I believe that in those days nothing but cowardice, springing from absolute exhaustion of body and mind, kept me from by my own hand terminating my weary existence. I was too spiritless to make the attempt, or I verily believe that I should have done it; and I believe, too, that Lizzie feared something of the sort, for she watched me closely, and seldom left my side. Thus the time dragged wearily on, every day finding me more apathetic and brooding, and, if possible, more miserable. I had given up taking exercise, and my appetite began to fail me. Like Job, I turned my face to the wall and prayed that I might die. I grew pale, my clothes commenced to hang loosely about me, and Lizzie begged hard that I would see a doctor; but I refused, for my wish was to die, and my weakness increasing every day, I began to have hopes the end was drawing near. Then one morning came a wonderful surprise, which roused me of a sudden from my sullen torpor, and brought the colour again to my cheeks and the light to my eyes. There was a letter addressed to me, which, as usual, Lizzie opened, but she had scarcely read it through when she jumped up with a cry of joy and amazement, calling out, "Listen, Vernon!" and then she read:—
"LINCOLN'S INN, February 2, 18—
"DEAR SIR—We are instructed by a client, who desires to remain anonymous, to hand to you the enclosed cheque for #1,000, and our client further wishes us to state that this sum is to be applied by you to seeking the advice of a certain Dr. Dondez, of Utrecht, with reference to a malady of the eyes, with which you are afflicted.
"Any further expenses which a temporary residence in Utrecht or fees to Dr. Dondez may necessitate will be paid by us on a personal application from you, the only stipulation being that you do not attempt to discover our client's personality.
"A receipt for the cheque by return of post will much oblige
"Your obedient servants,
"COLES & GREEN."
The letter slipped from her trembling fingers, and with a low, choking cry of joy she flung herself into my arms.
"Read it again!" I gasped, for I was bewildered and could scarcely believe my ears; and recovering herself a little, she dried her streaming eyes, and with broken voice and in disjointed sentences read it through again to me. There could be no possible mistake; it was all plain enough, and the solicitor's cheque for #1,000 lay on the table, as Lizzie over and over again assured me.
"Whom can it be from?" she cried in wondering tones as she laid the letter down; but I scarcely heard, and certainly did not answer her. I had risen to my feet, and was pacing with unsteady footsteps the little room. "Whom was it from?" In those first few moments of reawakened hope, what cared I whom it was from? One grand idea filled my whole understanding, and I had no room for other thoughts. Within my grasp lay the means of making a glorious effort for the recovery of my lost sense, and the very possibility of success was such wild and rapturous happiness that it turned me dizzy, intoxicated with a wild delirium of hope. It was possible that I might be once more like other men, that this eternal darkness might be rolled away from my eyes. To see! Ah, who can realize the maddening exhilaration of that thought who have not themselves been blind! No parched traveller in the desert longs so eagerly for water, no starving man craves so fiercely for bread, as longs the blind man for his sight. Imagine, if you can, the wild, unutterable joy which those feel who are blind to whom comes a sudden ray of hope that they may escape from their miserable blindness, and gaze once more upon the light of heaven and the faces of those whom they love. Several times Lizzie spoke to me during my restless perambulation, but in vain, for I was in a world of my own, and her voice troubled me not; for the first time since my illness, I was living indeed, and living thoughts were crowding in upon me—thoughts of what I might yet accomplish in my art, and wild dreams of winning Margaret surged madly into my brain. The colour came back to my cheeks, and the energy returned to my frame as I paced recklessly to and fro. Ah, how sweet life might yet be to me could I but return to it; for I had ceased to regard myself as living in my helpless state, and had prayed often and often for death to relieve Lizzie of her burden and me of my misery. And now again hope lifted the curtain which I had kept resolutely down, and showed me life in its most glowing and alluring colours, until I panted to join in it and be once more a unit, however insignificant, in the world of my fellow-men.
The remainder of that day seemed like a strange dream to me now, of which I can only recollect fragmentary parts, but I know that it was hours before I could collect my glowing thoughts and bring them down to the present. When at last exhausted, I sank into a chair, Lizzie came and sat beside me.
"Whom can it be from?" she exclaimed again in wondering tones, the prevailing instinct of her sex overcoming even her joy; and for the first time I also troubled myself to consider. We both came to the conclusion that it must be from my eccentric relation, who had not even answered my letter from Cromer. There was no one else, and his eccentricity would account for the strange way in which he had conveyed his gift; and so we blessed him together, the while we determined to respect his whim and refrain from thanking him.
Early on the morrow we called on Mr. Coles, but our hopes of extracting any information from him proved futile, for he was impenetrable. One thing we did ascertain, that Mr. Rowland (our relation) was a client of his, and this we accepted as proof positive that he was my mysterious benefactor. It was some time before I could reconcile myself to the idea of leaving England without even writing him a letter of thanks. But Lizzie and I talked the matter over well, and we decided that, since he had taken such pains to remain unknown, we ought, however incongruous and ungrateful it might appear, to fall in with his whim and not let him know that we had divined his generosity. And so in less than a fortnight we left England, having promised Mr. Coles to let him have news of my progress every week to transmit to my unknown friend.
That anonymous gift was indeed a godsend to me, for in less than twelve months my sight was fully restored. A weary time of probation I had, 'tis true, but it was rendered less tedious by the sustaining influence of hope which had sprung up strong within me, for Herr Dondez from the first expressed his conviction that my case, although a grave one, was not incurable, and after a month or two's careful nursing I was pronounced strong enough for the operation. It was a successful one, and when I came to my senses after it, the chaos in front of my eyes was somewhat changed; and when on a sudden impulse I lifted my hands, I found that I had on an enormous pair of green spectacles, through which, it is true, I could not distinguish objects, but nevertheless, I could tell that there was a change, for the thick, black, impenetrable darkness had given way to a milder obscurity, not half so dense, and I knew that I had entered upon the first stage of my recovery.
Slowly the weeks passed away, Lizzie full of exuberant happiness, and I full of a calmer but none the less deep joy. We were in lodgings at Utrecht, on the third floor of a tall, old-fashioned house. We were very comfortable, but had the place been a veritable dungeon we should scarcely have grumbled, for the great happiness which loomed in the immediate future absorbed all our thoughts. Every day we would descend the narrow stairs and either walk for an hour or two in the square, or drive, according to the weather; and every third day we paid a visit to Herr Dondez, who was full of unqualified approval of my progress and encouraging assurances of my approaching recovery.
In due course the second stage came, and, confined to my chamber, with the blinds drawn closely down, and every chink which could let in the light stopped up, my glasses were changed for less thick ones, and a day or two later, waking up as usual one morning, I startled Lizzie, who slept in the next room, by calling for her loudly, and when she hurried in to me, I welcomed her with a passionate cry, of joy.
"Liz! Liz! It has come at last!—the armchair, the walls, the table—I can see them all; and you too, Liz! Thank God!" And, overcome, I sobbed and laughed in a paroxysm of childish delight, while she stood by and joined in my hysterical happiness.
From that day I passed rapidly through the remaining stages of my recovery, and in a few weeks Lizzie and I left for England, I helpless no longer, and wearing only a pair of ordinary spectacles, with the assurance of being able to dispense with these even before long; and on the homeward voyage Lizzie told me a secret, which more than ever filled me with love and gratitude to her who had been for so long my gentle and patient nurse. Just at the time when my blindness had come upon me, a new happiness had commenced to dawn before her, but for my sake she had given it up, and, making a sacrifice which only a woman, and a true, faithful woman, could have made, she had answered "no" to the man whom she loved, and instead of seeking happiness with him, she had devoted herself to the hard and thankless task of being my nurse and companion. And what a dull, tedious life hers must have been during that weary while, every moment of which was spent in ministering to my wants, listening to my fretful complaints, and cheering me through my despondent and sulky moods! I know that I was a troublesome charge and a bad patient, but she (Lizzie) bore all without a complaint and cheerfully. She, too, is happy now; and I know that her happiness is none the less deep and perfect because she risked it all without a murmur that she might lighten my misery.
He whom she had loved was a poor man, a curate in a suburb of London; but very soon after our return from abroad they were married. They would have had me live with them, but I preferred solitude and my art, and I took rooms in a quiet part of the metropolis, fitting the chief one up as a studio, and commenced again to follow with frantic zeal my beloved pursuit. Before we had set foot in England, Lizzie had slipped into my hand a newspaper many months old, with a whispered plea for forgiveness that she had kept it from me so long, and in it I read of Margaret's marriage to a Manchester millionaire; so there was no other object to fill my thoughts. Gradually my eyes grew quite strong, and I laboured without ceasing to make up for lost time, for with the recovery of my sight had come back to me the glowing dreams and wild ambition of my younger days. One sorrow still hung over me, and frequently diverted my thoughts for a while, and often the brush would slip from my fingers and I would think for hours together of those dreamy days at Cromer. That strange passion for my unseen enchantress I had never been able to stamp out, and it threw a tinge of sadness around my life, even after the wonderful joy of my recovery. I felt sometimes that I would have given everything to have looked for once into her face, and to have seen her whom my fancy so strongly depicted. And yet, cui bono? In all probability she had forgotten my very name; and was she not besides the wife of another man? It were better that I should banish from my memory every recollection, however sweet, of those happy days, and with such determination I would turn resolutely to my canvas and work with renewed energy.
As the summer drew on and the heat in my little studio became unbearable, I began to long for a change and a whiff of sea air. The first place that suggested itself was Cromer, and hailing the idea as an inspiration, I went.
It was the first time that I had seen the place, but so accurately had Lizzie described it to me that everything seemed familiar, and I felt a keen interest in finding out the places to which I had been led—the little wooden jetty, the narrow streets, the bracken-covered cliffs, and the low railing in front of the hotel, leaning against which I had fought that battle with myself when Margaret's kind questions and low trembling voice had almost driven me mad. These all I quickly recognized, and found a curious pleasure in seeking out—a pleasure enhanced by the sweet subtle recollections they inspired. And yet there was pain in such recollections, and after the first day or two I began to wonder whether I had not been a fool to come.
One afternoon I sat on the cliffs, halfway between Cromer and Overstrand, sketching. I was absorbed in my work, and bending close over my canvas to introduce some delicate touches, so that, although I heard voices approaching, and stop quite close to me, I did not look up. A minute or two passed, and I was just regarding my work with a critical eye, when I was startled by a horrified cry of warning, followed by an agonized shriek. I sprang to my feet just in time to see a woman struggling for her balance on the very verge of the cliff, with her arms stretched out and grasping frantically at the empty air in a vain attempt to regain her equilibrium; then with a despairing cry she disappeared over the edge. A man, who had evidently been her companion, and I reached the spot together, and for a moment we stood looking at each other with blanched faces, dreading to glance downwards. Then lying flat, on my chest, I peered over the edge with a sickening throbbing of my heart, and I saw at once that something very extraordinary had happened. The unfortunate woman had been caught by a projecting mass of the cliff, scarcely thirty yards down, and was lying there all in a heap, apparently unconscious, whilst every moment the lump of earth on which she lay threatened to crumble away beneath her weight and plunge her down the whole awful distance. I scrambled to my feet. Her companion was standing a few yards back with his face buried in his hands, groaning.
"We may save her yet!" I cried. "Make for the lighthouse yonder and get a rope and help. Run, for God's sake, run, or it will be too late!" And with an answering gesture he sprang away up the hill.
Then, slowly and with caution, I commenced to descend the cliff from a point a few yards higher up, where just at first starting it was not so precipitous. It was a fearful task, and several times, as the loose soil crumbled away from beneath my feet, I closed my eyes and gave myself up for lost. For once fortune was on my side, however, and by a circuitous route I reached a mass of earth which afforded me footing for a moment or two, close to where she was lying. Then I ventured to look round and take in the prospect. She had evidently either fainted or was seriously hurt, for she lay there with closed eyes, all unconscious of her deadly peril, and I saw with horror that I was not a moment too soon, for the soil was giving way beneath her, and seemed to be about to immediately collapse. Between us, close to her, was a bush, and in that lay our only chance. How I was to reach it I could not at first imagine; it jutted out at right angles to the cliff, and was perfectly inaccessible to me except by a jump, and a jump I soon decided it must be. That was a horrid moment. Supposing I missed my footing or my grasp, where should I be? The former would avail me nothing unless at the same time I grasped the bush, for the frail platform of earth beneath was far too narrow and insecure to afford support of itself. Delay was of no avail, however, so, screwing up my courage, I jumped, and jumped to a hair's breadth where I had intended. The shrub was tough, and grasping it firmly with my left hand, I stooped down and passed my disengaged arm round her waist. She shivered as she felt my touch, and slowly opening her eyes, fixed them full on me with a bewildered, incredulous look slowly appearing in them, and then she murmured my name.
I knew her, and the start I gave nearly cost us both our lives. Thus it was, for the first time I saw her, halfway between life and death, with only my arm to protect her from a fearful fate and like lightning flashed into my mind the sweet, maddening thoughts that if we died we should die together. Our awful position, which but a moment before had absorbed my every thought, was forgotten like magic. I forgot that unless help came we should surely die. I forgot everything save that we were together, Margaret and I, cut off, as it were, from the world; and I drew her closer to me, and covered her face with passionate kisses. And with her arms around my neck, half-fainting, half-sensible as she was, I laughed aloud in reckless disregard of the peril which but a moment before had appalled me.
It seemed to me a lifetime that we hung on there together, and yet they told me afterwards that it could have been only a quarter of an hour. Then shouts from above roused me from my passionate contemplation, and I saw a rope with a sort of noose at the end descending, and knew that in all probability we were saved. Carefully I fastened the rope around her, and then, bending down once more, I kissed her unrebuked.
"Good-bye, Margaret," I whispered; and then I shouted to the men above, and slowly she was drawn away from me.
"You too!" she called out anxiously, as she felt herself moving; and I nodded.
"In a moment; I'm quite safe here," and breathlessly I watched her being drawn away from me, until at last she reached the top and disappeared over the edge. Then the rope was sent down again, and, fastening it around my own waist, I scrambled up the cliff.
Margaret, ghastly pale and apparently again unconscious, had been placed in a Bath-chair; and from amongst the little group which surrounded it her husband stepped out, and hurried towards me with outstretched hand.
"You have saved my wife's life, sir," he said warmly, "and I can never thank you enough. My name is Hathern;" he handed me a card. "And yours?"
"Harpenden," I told him, and muttered that he exaggerated my services.
"Where are you stopping here?" he asked, glancing round at the Bath-chair, which was being wheeled away. I told him, and, shaking my passive hand heartily, he hurried off, promising to look me up.
The few loiterers whom the commotion had brought together soon moved away, and I was left alone on the scene which had well-nigh witnessed a tragedy. Mechanically I gathered up my sketching apparatus, and was moving off, when my eyes fell upon something white lying near the edge of the cliff. I crossed over to the spot, and found a handkerchief and a letter addressed to Mrs. Hathern. The writing on the envelope was familiar, and as I turned it over an enclosure dropped out and fluttered to the ground. I stooped to pick it up, and with a start recognized my own writing. I held it in my hand—the last letter that I had written to Messrs. Coles & Green, announcing my complete recovery, and begging them to try and induce my unknown benefactor to declare himself. For a moment I was stupefied, and then the truth burst in upon me like a flash. It was Margaret who had sent me the thousand pounds. It was Margaret to whom I owed my sight.
My first impulse was one of overpowering joy. I remembered her low, trembling tones, suggestive of an emotion which her words did not express, when we had parted at this very place two years ago. In my hand was proof of her great interest in me, and I remembered that but a few minutes ago she had lain in my arms unresisting, and suffered me to kiss her unchidden; had looked at me with a glad smile on her face when death stared us in the face. Surely it must be that she loved me. For a moment I revelled in the ecstasy of the thought, and then, like the awakening from a dream, came the bitter consciousness that the love of Margaret Hathern was a vain thing. The Margaret whom I had, whom, alas! I still, loved must be a memory, and a memory only. The wife of the Manchester millionaire could be nothing to me.
I returned to my lodgings, and, leaving word that if any one called to see me I was out, I sat down and wrote to Mrs. Hathern. I returned to her the letters I had found, acknowledging that I had discovered her secret, and imploring her to tell me why she had done this thing. Then I packed up my few belongings, and prepared to start for London on the morrow; for with the remembrance of those few moments of exquisite, delirious joy strong within me, I felt that I dared not meet her again. Three times Mr. Hathern called to see me, and as he paid his last fruitless visit I watched him from behind the curtain, and marvelled to myself how he had been able to win the love of such a woman as Margaret. A plain, pompous-looking little man, with keen, almost cunning eyes, and unpleasant countenance, the very prototype of what he was—a successful financier. Bah! I let the curtain drop, and returned to my seat in a weary disgust to moralize on the madness and iniquity of marrying for money.
Early on the morrow I left for London, and on the following day came the letter I was longing to receive. With trembling fingers I tore it open—
"Vernon," (there was no orthodox commencement), "you bid me
tell you all the truth, and now that I am married I may do so. To begin,
then: When we met at Cromer, I pitied you for your trouble, and sympathized
with you in your great misfortune, and before I left I had begun to care for
you. I fancied sometimes that you cared for me, but I was never sure. I went
as near telling you my secret as a woman may and still preserve her
self-respect, on the morning of my departure. You answered me coldly; and I
went away in anger, determined to forget you. I did not succeed. Often I
thought of you, and often I longed to have it within my power to aid you
towards the recovery of your sight. But I was poor, and as far off possessing
a thousand pounds as you were. Then John Hathern was introduced to me at a
friend's house near Manchester, and from that moment I was persecuted. He
wanted me to marry him, and my aunt and all my friends pressed and implored
me to accept him until I was driven nearly mad. Just as I grew desperate, an
idea occurred to me. I cared little what happened to me, for life seemed
cheerless and dull; so I told John Hathern that I would marry him on one
condition—that he would give me a thousand pounds to do exactly as I
pleased with, and ask no questions as to its disposal. Eagerly he consented;
so I, caring little what became of me, sold myself for a thousand pounds, and
sent you the money through a solicitor. Now you know all. I am a miserable
woman, but I have a great, consolation in the thought that the price of my
bondage has brought you back your sight. And, Vernon, God forgive me if it is
wrong; but I have now another consolation, although it is a sad one—I
have seen you, and I know that you love me. I knew it when I felt your arms
around me, hanging on those terrible cliffs; and I would have been content at
that moment to have died, for I would sooner die than live as I am living
now. So, Vernon, I cannot thank you much for saving my life; though since it
was to be saved, I am glad that it was you who saved it. Good-bye! Try and
forget me; and, if we should ever meet, don 't speak to me. I could not
refuse to see you if you came, or to speak to you if you addressed me, but,
oh, Vernon, remember my one request to you—keep away from me. You know
why; but let me tell you once more, for I hope and pray that I shall never
see you again, I love you!
That same night I left England, and for more than three years I wandered all over Europe, a miserable, unhappy man, carrying with me and nursing my bitter grief. I had no interest in life; I did nothing. If there had been war in any quarter of the globe, I should have enlisted; but there was none, and I could find no occupation to drown my sorrow. I stayed at Monaco, and lost in one evening every penny I had in the world at the tables; and all that night, instead of bemoaning my losses, I was lying awake thinking of Margaret. The next day, with a borrowed coin, I won all back, and broke the bank; but the flush of success was as powerless as were my losses to win me forgetfulness of my grief. Then I moved on to Rome, and here I found the first spark of relief. Love of my art came back to the rescue, and I sought an outlet for my sorrows by frantically hard work. My pictures began to sell, and I advanced rapidly. In little over a year I was able to return to my "unknown benefactor," through Messrs. Coles & Green, the thousand pounds by means of which I had regained my sight. I moved to Paris, and success advanced to fame. Then, after three years' absence, I came back to England, and exhibited my masterpiece in the Academy. Success was at my feet now that I cared little for it. My picture was the picture of the season; it became the fashion, and people flocked to gaze upon it. I was pressed to accept for it sums which a few years back would have seemed a fortune; but I was well off now, and grimly declined all offers. I had made up my mind to keep that picture, and nothing would tempt me to sell. It hangs in my dining-room now, and few people enter the room without stopping for a moment to examine it more closely. There are the cliffs at Cromer, and, lying in midair, supported by a loose mass of stones and earth, and evidently in deadly peril, a woman is lying with her face upturned. It is that face which is the charm of the picture. Whose face it is I need scarcely say.
I was not vain of my success, but simply out of pure love for the picture I used to go in and look at it for a few minutes every day, regardless of the crowds who hustled me and peered over my shoulder to look at the hit of the season. One, morning I arrived early, and, save for one woman, the space in front of it was deserted. As usual, I lingered there for nearly a quarter of an hour, deep in memories which that face and that scene never failed to awaken; and then, recalled to myself by the pitching of the people who were commencing to crowd around, I turned to go. As I withdrew myself from the group, I noticed that the lady who had forestalled me was still intently regarding the picture, and it struck me at once that there was something familiar in her attitude and figure. At that moment she turned slightly round, and then, over the heads and shoulders of a well-dressed mob of fashionable men and women, all engaged in criticism of my picture, I caught the gaze of the woman who had Inspired it, and Margaret and I stood face to face for the second time. I took a hasty step towards her, and then drew back; but her glad smile of welcome reassured me, and, faltering out some conventional greeting, I extended my hand. We stood for a moment in silence; then she pointed to the picture.
"You have not forgotten, then?"
"I shall never forget," I answered sadly, and, as if by mutual accord, we turned away and passed out into the street, I half-dazed by so sudden a rencontre, and scarcely believing that it was she indeed who walked by my side. Often had I pictured to myself such a meeting, and had imagined what I should say to her, and what she would reply; but now that it had actually come to pass my ideas had flown, and speech had deserted me.
She paused when we reached the street, and so did I, embarrassed.
"Shall I look for your carriage, Mrs. Hathern?" I stammered, glancing down the line of vehicles; but she laughed a little, and then grew suddenly grave.
"Perhaps you have not heard that my husband is dead?" she said softly. "He died nearly two years ago, and I can scarcely afford a carriage now," she added, with a broken little laugh.
"Dead!" I echoed, and stood on the pavement by her side speechless, while the vague possibilities called up by that word rushed into my brain, and a sudden thought made my heart beat wildly. "Margaret!" and, seizing her hand, I gazed down into her face, unable to say more. She was blushing, but looked up for a moment; and when her eyes met mine I knew that my years of probation were over, and that my happiness had come at last.
A few hours later, seated by her side in her humble lodgings, I heard of her husband's bankruptcy and death; and how since then she had had a hard fight with poverty, as, indeed, her surroundings showed me. The thousand pounds which Messrs. Coles & Green had handed to her from me had been a godsend, for it had enabled her to pay all her own bills, and had kept her in London until she had been able to find a little work to do. And then she told me, laughing through her tears, how she had heard of my dicture, and had determined to go and see it, although shillings were scarce with her; and what came of her going we know.
Very soon we were married. Lizzie's husband performed the ceremony, and Lizzie, now a happy mother, was present. Then we left England for a while, visiting many places which Margaret had long wished to see; and on our return we finished our honeymoon at Cromer, and I think we enjoyed that last fortnight as well as any part of it. We seldom miss visiting it now every summer; and although we—Margaret and I—are growing older, and our children are beginning to rebel, and hint at the superior attractions of the Continent, I don't think that she and I will ever tire of it, any more than we could tire of one another.
Calcutta, November 13.—I have had an adventure to-day. I was riding back here from Tom Sadler's place, where a few of us have been stopping since last Thursday, when I came upon a young lady in distress. She had been trying to ford a swollen stream, and her mare, a leggy, narrow-chested brute, had pretty nearly come to grief. It was a close thing, and no mistake. They'd have been down the stream anyhow in another minute, and I doubt if the great brute wouldn't have dragged her under even if she had been able to swim. Of course I managed to pull her out, and found her not much the worse for her ducking. I took her home, as she really wasn't fit to go alone, but I'm thankful to say that I escaped the parental blessing. The old gentleman—he's a tea-planter—was out, and I pleaded regimental duties as an excuse for hurrying off. Promised to call first opportunity.
November 20.—I can't get that girl's face out of my mind. I don't know that I ever saw a more lovely one. Strange thing for me to do, but I've actually dreamt of her three nights following. What an absurdity!
December 10.—I wish here most distinctly to affirm that I am not a superstitious man. This is a land of weird and fanciful beliefs, but I have always prided myself upon my sound common sense. If anything, I am a little too much inclined to absolute materialism, and yet what I now set down I believe to be the sober truth. I have seen a ghost. Three times during the middle of the night last week I have seen a woman in my room, standing just inside the door, with her hands stretched out appealingly towards me, and her face was the face of the girl whom I dragged out of the water near Tom Sadler's place scarcely a month ago. God grant that I may not see it again.
June 13.—As long as I live this day, or rather last night, will dwell in my mind. What have I done that I should be thus tormented? My nerves are completely shattered, and every one tells me that I look like a ghost. Again last night, it, or she, came, and as I sat up in bed I saw her scarcely a yard away, and her hands, which she held out as before, were red with blood. I saw it dripping slowly on to the floor, and I saw her look of horror as she drew back and pointed to the stain. Then I jumped out of bed, but she vanished with a last imploring gesture, and there was no stain on the mats. Another night like last night, and the fever will have me.
June 13.—Thank God I have seen no more of it. 'This afternoon I am going up country to seek her at the house. I doubt whether I shall find her alive.
June 20.—Just returned. I found the house shut up, and learnt that the late proprietor had died five months ago, and that his daughter had gone to Europe. I scarcely know whether I dread or long most to see her again.
June 30.—The mail has brought me strange news. My uncle and cousin have died suddenly, and I am Sir Reginald Shagshaft of Shagshaft Castle, Northumberland, and owner of more thousands a year than I have ever had hundreds. Good-bye to India, and the army! I sail for England in a week.
November 20.—I am at Shagshaft Castle, and a grand old place it is, but terribly desolate. It is built on the summit of a cliff, and a couple of hundred feet below as wild-looking a grey sea as ever I saw in my life thunders in upon a rocky storm-bound coast. When I have set things a little in order, I shall go to Paris for a while. The screech of the sea gulls alone is enough to give one the horrors, and in all this great place there are only three servants, for not a girl in all the country side will come here because of the ghost, which is said to inhabit the western wing and to walk in the black copse. Mrs. Cross, the housekeeper, seems a decent sort of person, but she firmly believes in the ghost, and came to me yesterday with tears in her eyes imploring me not to intrude upon its haunts. I ought to have humoured her a little, I think; for when I told her that I should make a point of finding out all about this ghost with a view to evicting it, and that I should fill the place with London servants, she turned as pale as a sheet, and very nearly went into hysterics. I have always heard that north-country people are superstitious.
November 21.—I can't understand Mrs. Cross at all. To-day she would persist in telling me the story of a terrible tragedy which took place near here a few months ago—a man murdered by a girl—and insisted upon my giving my opinion about it. I said that if the story she told was true, it served the man right—and so it did. She seemed unaccountably pleased at my answer.
November 22.-I walked in the black copse to-night, but saw nothing of the ghost. I shall leave here in a week.
November 23.—A touch of my old madness has returned. Unless my eyes can lie I have seen this ghost. I was in the garden last night, and distinctly saw a white figure move along the battlements of the western tower and disappear. It was the figure of a woman, and, strange though it may appear, it seemed somehow familiar to me.
November 24.—Again I have seen the ghost. As I live I will find out what this means. I have not worn the V.C. for nothing, and no one has ever called Colonel Shagshaft a coward. I will stand face to face with this tormenting shadow, and with my own hands will find out whether or no my senses are mocking me.
November 25.—To-night I stood on the battlements of the western wing and waited, with my sword in my hand, for well-nigh three hours. It never came. When I descended, I found Mrs. Cross in a fit. It seems strange that she should be so anxious. She feared for my safety, she declared trembling; and if anything happened to me, strangers would come to the old place. For I am the last of the Shagshafts of Shagshaft.
November 26.—This morning I asked Mrs. Cross for an old manuscript copy of the history of Shagshaft Castle, as I fancied that I had heard something about a secret room in the western wing.
What a nervous woman she is! I had scarcely got the words out before she fainted. There is something all about this which I cannot understand. When she came to, she declared solemnly that she had never heard of such a book. This must be false, for I have often been told about it; anyhow, I was only the more determined to thoroughly explore the western wing, so I commenced at once. On the topmost storey, starting from the centre tower, and going to the right, I counted thirteen rooms, all large, empty, and in a neglected state. When I reached the furthermost, I turned round with a start to find Mrs. Cross just behind me. At the sight of her my suspicions were at once thoroughly aroused.
"Mrs. Cross," I said quietly, "I am quite aware that I am getting warm; in other words, that I shall unearth this precious ghost in something less than five minutes. Now let me tell you this," I continued, drawing a small pocket revolver: "I am going to put an end to this confounded masquerading once and for all."
She drew close to him.
"You have found the book!" she gasped. "You know about the secret chamber!"
"Precisely!" I answered. "And it will go ill with its tenant."
Then she fell on her knees before me.
"For the love of God don't hurt her, Sir Reginald," she moaned. "Doan't 'e give her up; so young as she is and so beautiful, and so innocent like. She'd never 'a hurt a hair of old Roger Martin's head if he hadn't offered her an insult worse nor death; and she ne'er meant to kill him. He tried to take the gun frae 'er, and it went off. What could 'a do when she came to me for help but hide her. Oh, Sir Reginald! you're the last Shagshaft o' Shagshaft, but, afore God, I'll curse 'ee if 'ee hurt her, or give her up to the law."
"Stand up, woman, and tell me whom you have been hiding," I cried.
She trembled all over.
"Her as killed old Roger Martin, the wickedest man in all the country side. Her father left her to his care. Little he could 'a knowed what sort of a man he was; and she came from India here last April—"
Down fell the revolver from my nerveless fingers, and I bent eagerly forward.
"The date! What was the day of the month when she—she did this deed?"
"It wur the night o' the eleventh o' June ——"
She stopped short. My eyes followed hers, and standing in an aperture of the wall at the other end of the room, her arms stretched out appealingly to me, was the figure of a young girl. I knew her at once, and a cold shiver went through me. I had seen her before in her drenched riding-hood on the banks of tile Ghooly stream, and I had seen her, too, in this same posture by my bedside at the barracks in Calcutta. And yet on that same night she had been many thousand miles away. My eyes remained fixed upon her—fascinated. No longer could I call myself a brave man, for I was trembling.
"Sir Reginald Shagshaft, I—"
She stopped short and put her hand to her forehead. Then she moved swiftly into the room and threw herself on her knees before me.
"Oh, it is you," she cried joyfully; "you, who saved me from drowning in the Ghooly river You will not give me up? You will let me stay here? Before God, I swear to you that I never meant to hurt him."
Her voice failed her, and her lithe, supple frame was convulsed with sobs. I spoke as one in a dream.
"I will not give you up or turn you away," I promised. "I will come to you to-morrow, and you shall tell me all about it."
Then I staggered out of the room like a drunken man, and left them weeping for joy.
November 27.—Most of the day I have spent with Maud Moray, and I have heard her story. Her father had died suddenly and had left her to the guardianship of an old Northumbrian squire, a distant relative, whom he had never seen. She had come over to England, and had found that her new home was a tumble-down farmhouse on a wild, desolate moor, and that her guardian was a man of evil repute—a drunkard, and worse. She was only two miles away from Shagshaft Castle, and she had often visited it, and, by her wondering praise of its grandeur and antiquity, had first won Mrs. Cross's heart. Then had come a terrible night when, flushed with drink, old Roger Martin had been sent to his doom by a desperate girl. I pass over her hasty, reluctant description of that awful scene. In her horror at what she had done her first instinct had been to fly, and she had found her way by the pale light of the moon across the bleak moor to Shagshaft Castle. She had lain hidden in the black copse, where none dare venture after nightfall, until morning, and then she had crept into Mrs. Cross's room and told her terrible tale. What could Mrs. Cross do but promise to try and hide her? Roger Martin had been her sworn enemy, and the news of his death was a joy to her. There and then she had promised to do her best to shield this unhappy girl from the consequences of her rash deed. There was a part of the Castle which neither man nor woman for many miles round dare visit, for, from time immemorial, it has been steadfastly believed to be haunted by the ghost of a former lady of Shagshaft. And so she had unlocked the secret chamber which none save she knew of, and Maud Moray had taken up her abode there. To increase the awe with which that part of the Castle was already looked upon by the rustics, she had now and then walked on the battlements at night clad in a white gown. So well had she succeeded that one by one the servants had fled away, and had left Mrs. Cross almost alone. Then had come the news of my unexpected arrival—I had not written until I arrived in England—and for a while their anxiety had been intense. I shall never forget how Mrs. Cross sobbed for joy when I gave that hasty promise or how beautiful she looked on her knees before me, with her golden hair streaming down her back, and her great blue eyes fixed upon mine, full of passionate entreaty. Justice or no justice, no man shall lay a hand upon her in my house.
November 28.—Mine is a terrible position. I am an officer in the service of the Queen, and I am wilfully harbouring a criminal. I learnt to-day that there is a warrant out for her arrest, and the whole country is being scoured for her. I defy them to find her here. Still I am nervous, and live in perpetual dread. Most of the day I have spent with her. She is very beautiful.
December 2.-I was never a fatalist, but every idea of mine is unhinged by the strange thing which has happened to me. It seems almost as if some invisible hand had drawn us together. I give up fighting against it. I confess that I am madly in love with Maud Moray. Death alone shall part us; I have sworn it.
December 3.—Another day of wild delirious happiness. She has confessed that she loves me. I have given up fighting against fate. Were she the blackest-hearted of women, instead of a pure innocent girl driven to defend her honour by desperate means, she should still be mine. We will go away together, to some far country, where she will be safe, and we can live in peace. For her sake I will welcome exile for ever from England and home.
December 12.—I have made plans. There is a steamer starts from Liverpool for Buenos Ayres in a month's time. We will go by it. Maud is willing and anxious to escape from her confinement. We can be married on board. Our chief difficulty will be in getting Maud away from this place.
December 20.—We have made arrangements about getting Maud away. Mrs. Cross has a niece about her height and complexion, whom she is to invite to stop here for a few days. Then Maud is to wear her clothes and leave in her stead. At Atwick I shall join her, and we shall go straight to Liverpool. God grant that there may be no slip! How I long for freedom, and to escape from this constant anxiety!
December 25.—It is Christmas Day, and our last day here. Mrs. Cross's niece has arrived. Except that she is not one-tenth part as beautiful, she is not unlike Maud. All our arrangements are made. Nothing can go wrong; and yet I feel strangely depressed and nervous. The slightest noise makes me start. My heart seems dragged down as though by a weight of lead, and my blood is like ice. I have been drinking wine, but it does me no good. It seems to freeze within me, and I am cold. It must be this cursed damp room. 'Twould hold an army, and the table at which I dine would seat two hundred. This place is too big: it oppresses me. Good God I...
I must be ill. I could have sworn that it was she who came out of the shadows there, with her arms outstretched, just as I saw her in my room at Calcutta. What a superstitious fool I am! Can it be that the twilight is ma king a coward of me? It looks like it, for my limbs are trembling, and the cold sweat is running down my forehead. I must have some wine.
Now, I feel better. How strange it seems that in this great place she and I are alone! Mrs. Cross and her niece have gone down to the village, and the last of the remaining servants left us yesterday. "She couldn't spend Christmas day in a haunted house," she said. How the wind is howling through those pine trees in the black copse This is certainly the weirdest and the dreariest place I was ever in. One can imagine the people being superstitious. The moaning of the sea on the beach below is enough to give one the melancholies. I feel drowsy. I...
I have had a sleep and again the nightmare. I fancied that I heard her calling to me to save her. It must have been the sighing of the wind in the black copse. My God! What a blaze of light! Can it be daytime? Dark figures on the lawn! My God! What is this?...
[END OF DIARY.]
Fire at Shagshaft Castle! and such a fire Sheets of flame, leaping and curling round the grand old towers and blackened walls, shooting torrents of sparks high up into the air, bending low before the wild gusts of the storm-wind which urged it forward, and casting a red, hellish glare far out into the sea below, and high up into the heavens above. Never have the little knot of villagers, who are clustering together upon the lawn, seen or imagined anything so wildly, so fearfully grand. And from that fast grim pile of buildings there comes no sound or sign of life. Almost it seems that those within are sleeping the sleep of the dead.
Suddenly a window on the ground floor is thrown open with a crash, and a tall, military-looking man, with a note book in his hand, leaps out on to the lawn. He stares for a moment aghast, petrified, at the burning pile. Before he can speak or move, there is a low shuddering murmur from those around him, and all eyes are riveted upon the western wing.
"The ghost! The ghost!"
High up on the battlements of the doomed castle, her figure standing out with startling distinctness against the glowing background, a woman, in a long white robe, is standing. The flames, which bend and roll towards her, do her one good service; every one can see her desperate strait. They can see her fair hair streaming in the wind, her white arms stretched imploringly out towards one figure on the lawn, and can almost see her lips part in an agonized appeal.
He sees it all, and, with a wild cry which rises high above the roaring and crashing of the fire, he dashes through the smoke into the burning building. Some try to follow him, and some run for ladders; but all in vain. None other save he dare face the sheets of flame, nor will all the rapidly procured ladders reach half way to those frowning battlements, and so they wait in a breathless silence—thrilled, but helpless.
Minutes pass, and the flames are rapidly nearing the woman, who stands there motionless, like a Grecian statue. Then there is a wild shout as the blackened figure of a man leaps on to the roof by her side. She welcomes him with a great cry of joy, and for a moment they disappear, but only to return again. Their retreat has been cut off. They are doomed. They stand there, against the lurid sky, clasped in one another's arms—hero and heroine, facing death together as they could never have faced it apart. And on the lawn below the women are swooning and strong men fall sobbing to the ground that their fascinated eyes may not rest upon the awful sight.
One man alone had nerve enough to look upon it, and, with bated breath, he is often called upon to tell the tale. So often, that in that dreary Northumbrian village there is not a man, woman, or child who does not know by heart the story of how the last Lord of Shagshaft died like a hero amongst the ruins of his castle, with the beautiful Shagshaft ghost, for whom he had given his life, clasped in his arms.
A dainty blue-eyed little woman was walking restlessly up and down over the thick carpet and amongst the miniature fauteuils and lounges of one of the prettiest morning-rooms in London. The door, as if by design, was standing an inch or two open, and each time as she reached it she bent forward her little head, coroneted with a wavy mass of half-golden, half-auburn hair, and listened intently for a moment or two.
She was certainly a very impatient young lady, for though she had been here alone for barely a quarter of an hour, her piquant face had already commenced to wear a most unbecoming expression of vexed anxiety. Her book and fancy-work had long since slipped on to the carpet, and by degrees her periods of listening at the door grew more frequent and prolonged. At last the sound for which she listened reached her ears. She stepped back into the room and drew a long breath, as if of apprehension. In a very short time a tall, fair young man, with a most woebegone countenance and altogether dejected appearance, pushed open the door and stood on the rug without entering.
"It's all up!" he said, in a tone which exactly matched his downcast looks. "I don't know what'll become of me now, and I don't much care. I'm not to see you again, you'll be pleased to hear."
She laughed cheerfully. It sounded a little forced, but it was very brave.
"Don't talk nonsense, Geoff! Come in and tell me all about it at once," she commanded.
Her cousin looked doubtfully up the broad stairs, down which he had just descended.
"The governor will be down in a minute to see if I have cleared off the premises," he said bitterly. "There'll be no end of a row if he finds me here with you. I think I'd better go."
Perhaps if she had been a very astute young lady she would have discovered from his tone that he had no intention of doing anything of the sort. But she was not; or, if she was, her present anxiety had clouded her wits; and, in her fear lest he should act upon his words, she pulled him gently into the room and shut the door, which was exactly what he desired.
"You booby! You haven't promised not to speak to me, have you? Sit down there, and tell me all about it."
Of course he obeyed his pretty cousin's commands. When had he ever done otherwise since the days of their babyhood? at which period her rule had been even more rigid and his servitude more complete than now. He flung himself into an easy chair and assumed a most lugubrious expression.
"You're not to pull a long face like that, please, Geoff," she exclaimed, drawing a footstool up to the side of his chair and looking very demure. "Now, just begin at the beginning, and go right on. Tell me what you said, and what he said, and all the rest of it. I expect you must have bungled frightfully."
"I expect I did," he assented disconsolately.
"Well, here goes. He didn't seem particularly pleased to see me when James showed me in—just shook hands and never asked me to sit down. Of course I did; and, to make matters worse, plumped down on that inf—— beastly little dog he's always got hanging about him. What are you laughing at, Jennie? It was no joke, I can tell you!"
"I don't suppose it was—for poor Tony. Go on, please."
He let his hand rest for a moment on her head, and commenced stroking her hair, as if he found that rather more entertaining than recapitulating his recent interview with her father. Presently he drew his hand away with a sigh, and continued—
"Well, that made him awfully savage. 'Well, sir, and what do you want?' he said. I thought I might as well go straight at it, so I said that I wanted you. 'What!' he shouted. I repeated that I had come to ask his consent to our engagement; and I was just going to try and explain to him how awfully fond we were of one another, and all that, you know, when he stopped me, and began lecturing away until I thought that I should faint. He wanted to know what my income was, as if he didn't know that I have only that three hundred a year old Howard left me, besides my pay. 'And I suppose that just keeps you in hansoms and cigars?' he said sneeringly. I told him that of course one couldn't expect it to do much more; and that seemed to make him worse than ever. I don't know why, I'm sure. He fumed about for a minute or two, and said all manner of ridiculous things, and then he suddenly cooled down. 'Look here, Geoffrey,' he said. 'I'm not particularly anxious that my daughter should marry a rich man'—('Lucky for me,' I thought)—'but I won't have her marry a spendthrift.' Of course I was going to interrupt him there, but he wouldn't let me. Then he went on to make remarks about those few paltry flowers I've sent you, and the number of horses I keep—as if a fellow wasn't bound to keep a decent animal or two—and about that share in Dermi's moor. Well, I couldn't have got out of that, as I tried to explain to him, but he wouldn't listen; in short, he read me a tremendous lecture. Then he was good enough to say that I had some good points, and of course he didn't forget that I was his nephew, and all that; but he wound up at last by saying that he would not have his daughter marry a selfish and extravagant man. I must be selfish, he said, because I was extravagant. Ridiculous, isn't it? You don't think I'm selfish, do you, Jennie?"
"You know I don't, Geoff," she exclaimed energetically. "But go on. Did he give you no hope at all?"
"Not much. He wanted to know whether I was in debt. Of course I'm in debt. I never remember being out of it since the governor lost the Langton estates, and had to cut off my allowance. But, as it happens, I never was so nearly clear as I am now."
"How's that, Geoff? I don't believe that you have been economizing, for you only bought that—"
"No, Jennie, I haven't been economizing. I can't lay claim to so much virtue," he confessed with a short laugh. "You won't think any the better of me, I'm afraid, when I tell you that Sandown and the Oaks—"
"Oh, that horrid betting! But please finish telling me what papa said.
"Well, when he asked me whether I was in debt, I said I wasn't quite sure how I stood. No more I am, you know. I believe he thought that I was humbugging him then, for he looked awfully savage. 'Well, look here, Geoffrey,' he said, I don't mind my daughter marrying a poor man, but I won't let her marry a man with a cart-load of debts round his neck. If you can come to me in a week's time and tell me that you don't owe a penny, if you haven't a hundred pounds in the world, you shall have Jennie; but not unless.' He wouldn't let me say another word, and he wouldn't say another word himself; so I had to come away."
"Couldn't you get the money from those horrid Jews? It would be the last time, you know!"
"You little goose," he said, smiling dolefully, "shouldn't I owe it all the same? There's only one person in the world whom I could ask to give me money—the governor, of course; and I don't believe he would or could raise a quarter of what I want to save his life. Anyhow, I couldn't even ask him, unless I promised in some way or other to pay him back; and I mustn't do that, or else it would be a loan. I'm afraid it's a hopeless case, Jennie, unless that obdurate parent of yours changes his mind. Now, you silly little woman, what good will crying do? Leave off, please, come; let me wipe your eyes for you."
"Geoff, don't be stupid. I'm not crying; but it does seem very, very horrid, and—and I can't help thinking that you oughtn't to have been quite so extravagant. Do you owe very much money?" she asked pitifully.
He stroked his long mustaches, and looked down at her disconsolately.
"I'm afraid it's a goodish bit," he acknowledged. "I'll tell you what I'll do, though," he added suddenly; "I'll go into my accounts and find out. Can I see you to-morrow anywhere?"
A knock at the door, and a servant announced that his Master would be glad to see Miss Jeanette at once. She sprang up hurriedly.
"I must go, Geoff! I shall be at the Turners' all to-morrow afternoon. Couldn't you call?"
"Of course I can. I'll be there to lunch, and tell you all about it. Good-bye, and—"
"Geoff, don't, you silly boy! My hair isn't fit to be seen already. There! there's just one kiss for you, and now you really must go;" and, laughing, she pushed him out of the room and made her own escape.
The creditors of Mr. Geoffrey Chester (and they were many) were considerably surprised that afternoon by a peremptory request from their distinguished client that their accounts should be made up forthwith and sent in to him. There was a good deal of speculation amongst them as to the reason for this unusual request. Mortnum & Fason's head clerk was afraid that it meant bankruptcy; but Mr. Curshore, the celebrated Bond Street tailor, scented a wedding, and made out his little account with alacrity. Mr. Fogg, the horse-dealer, "ad 'eard as the 17th was down for furrin parts;" while Mr. Abraham Moses, to whom a little interest was due, shook his head, and prophesied a hoax. With all their diverse opinions, however, they one and all did as desired, and accordingly, when Geoffrey Chester sat down to breakfast on the following morning, he found a very formidable pile of blue letters surmounting his Morning Post.
"Shall I bring in the waste basket, sir?" his servant inquired, with just the suspicion of a grin upon his smooth features.
He felt a momentary temptation to say "Yes," the blue envelopes looked so decidedly uninviting, and it seemed so useless to wade through them. He didn't, though. He thought of Jennie, and answered almost apologetically—
"Not this morning, Burditt. I—I'm going to look through them."
The man bowed discreetly and withdrew. It was very dear, he confided to the groom, who was waiting below, that one of two things was going to happen: either their master was going to marry or he was going through the Bankruptcy Court; else why was he going to open those bills? This was an argument which Dick acknowledged to be quite unanswerable; and, being a young man of a cheerful frame of mind, he brought forward evidence in favour of the first proposition. Burditt, on the contrary, being a decided pessimist, adopted the latter view, and talked darkly of the Bankruptcy Court and the Board of Trade, of Boulogne lodgings and suicide, until the protesting words died away on Dick's lips, and he began to feel, as he afterwards acknowledged, "mortal uncomfortable."
Meanwhile Captain Chester, in happy ignorance of these dreary prognostications, was carefully entering in a small memorandum-book the amount at the foot of each document. Then he turned to another part of the book, and from a page headed "Bills" took sundry other amounts. Having added them up, his task was concluded. He owed in round figures a little over six thousand pounds, and all he had towards it was a cheque for two thousand guineas, the proceeds of his recent lucky speculations at Sandown. The case was hopeless. Without borrowing or selling his commission (that also Mr. Durban had barred), how was he to become possessed of four thousand pounds? His father was struggling with a heavily encumbered estate, and every day he expected a summons home to sign away the entail. To him he could not, of course, apply; and, save Mr. Durban, he had no other near relative. If ever a man cursed his poverty, Geoffrey Chester did as he flung the memorandum-book into a corner, and, catching up his hat, hurried out, he cared very little whither.
There had been a little note from his cousin, almost lost amongst the ponderous heap of businesslike epistles, postponing their meeting until tomorrow; so he went to the club to lunch. Afterwards, as he sauntered into the news-room, he was conscious of some great sensation amongst the men present; every one was crowding round a telegram which had just arrived, and there was a pretty general air of astonishment and dismay.
"Anything up?" he inquired laconically. It would take a good deal, he thought, to interest him just then. A little fair man looked round, and recognized him.
"Hullo! here's Chester! Heard the news?"
Geoffrey shook his head.
"Just been asking what it was," he remarked.
"Well, then, what do you think's won the Leicestershire?"
"I Haven't the least idea—Kinsky, I should think."
It takes a good deal to upset the equanimity of a captain of Dragoons; but Captain Chester felt for just one moment as though he were going to faint.
"Hit hard?" inquired his friend, compassionately. "We all are."
Geoffrey shook his head.
"I've won two thousand pounds," he said shortly, as he turned on his heel and walked away, amidst a general chorus of "Lucky devil!"
He went into one of the smaller rooms and sat down. It seemed almost past credence. The Monk, a horse which he had backed out of pure bravado at a hundred to one, and which had since been reported to have gone dead lame, to have won a race like this! If only he could raise two thousand pounds now!
He walked down the corridor, and in the entrance-hall ran against the man whom he most wished to see.
"Well, hang it all, Chester, talk about luck!" exclaimed the new-comer. "Do you know you've won two thousand pounds from me?"
Geoffrey was not likely to forget it.
"You can afford it, Darton," he said, smiling; "and, by-the-by, it's just likely I may want a little cash this week. I know settling day isn't—"
"My dear fellow, not another word," said Lord Darton good-humouredly. "I was hard up myself once, you know. Come into the waiting-room, and I'll write you a cheque."
There were more surprises in store for Geoffrey Chester that day. When he returned to his chambers to dress for an evening engagement, he found his solicitor seated in his easy chair, waiting for him.
"Captain Chester, you're a very lucky man," he exclaimed, as they shook hands. "I have a very pleasant surprise for you."
Geoffrey threw himself into a chair and stared at the lawyer. He was quite sure that there was no one who could have died and left him money, and he knew very well that this news could not be about the Monk, for Mr. Scales was not likely to know one horse's name from another.
"Well, I'm glad to hear it," he said. "Let's hear all about it."
"Certainly. You once had in your employ a servant named Thomas Gretton. Ah! I see you remember the name. He was a clever fellow, but he used to bet, and of course he lost. To meet his engagements he forged your name to a bill for five hundred and fifty pounds. You found it out; and by some means the fellow worked upon your generosity to such an extent that you not only took up the bill, but started him off to Australia. As it happened you did just about the best thing you possibly could have done. By this morning's post I received a letter from Gretton, and an order for the amount of the bill and interest, amounting altogether to six hundred and twenty pounds one shilling and eightpence, with instructions to place the same to the credit of your account. Here's the order, and I shall be glad 'if you'll give me a receipt at once, as I'm rather in a hurry. Thanks."
A few minutes later Dick was summoned into his master's room.
"Dick, I want you to take all the animals except Ironsides to Tattersall's to-morrow morning in time for the sale. You understand?"
Dick sorrowfully assented.
"And me, sir—am I to go, sir?"
"Go! Go where?"
"I thought that you may be a-wanting me to leave, sir, as you was selling the animals."
"Nonsense! I wouldn't part with you for the world, Dick," exclaimed his master, with a pleasant smile. "There'll be plenty more horses for you soon."
Dick departed to confide to Burditt that there was "summut more in the wind than they knowed of," as indeed there was.
The next day Geoffrey and his cousin met as arranged. This time the positions were reversed. It was she who was pale and despondent, while he looked happy and sanguine. Her father had quite made up his mind that Geoffrey was over head and ears in debt, and that he would not have him for a son-in-law. "She had never known him so determined about anything, she told him piteously, and—and—"
Geoffrey laughed, and stopped her mouth.
"No treason, Jennie. Listen to my news;" and he told her about the Monk and the bank order from Gretton. She listened with sparkling eyes, and presently began to share his hopefulness. Soon other callers arrived, however, and their tête-á-tête had to be abandoned. It was to be renewed, however, on the morrow at the house of another mutual friend.
Geoffrey Chester was known to ride good horses, and his little stud fetched high prices. Still, the proceeds did not come anywhere near fourteen hundred pounds; and even when his dog-cart and phaeton had followed he was still eight hundred pounds short. A few odds and ends of jewellery brought him in two hundred, and he contrived to scrape up a hundred pounds cash. But two more days passed, and nothing fresh had turned up. To raise five hundred pounds without borrowing, and having nothing to sell, is by no means an easy task. It seemed to Geoffrey that he had come to the end of his resources, and that he might as well be five thousand pounds short as five hundred. And yet to fail now would be maddening. He dared not contemplate such a contingency, and yet he hinted at it pretty plainly to his cousin that afternoon.
"Surely," he said, "if your father knows that I owe only five hundred pounds, he won't be so cruel as to refuse?"
She shook her head fearfully.
"You don't know what papa is, Geoffrey. He's so obstinate, and always keeps to what he says. Besides, he says it's the principle, and—and all manner of horrid things. You must get that five hundred pounds somehow."
"Exactly. I've told myself so a thousand times," he said ruefully, "but I'm no nearer getting it."
They were both thoughtful for a while. It was she who broke the silence.
"You know, Geoff," she said slowly, "I haven't much jewellery, but I have one diamond necklace which is worth ten times as much as we want. But then, papa made me promise only the other night that I wouldn't part with it, or anything, else."
"Well, then, that's no good, is it?"
"Well, I don't know. Look here, Geoff, I've got an idea. I'm afraid it isn't right, but—but listen—" And she told it him.
He ridiculed, wondered at, and finally applauded it. A little more discussion and they adopted it, subject to the consent of a third party. The third party consented at once to play his part, and so it was arranged.
That evening Mr. Durban took his daughter to Drury Lane. After the performance they had a little way to walk to their carriage, and if Mr. Durban had not been so very short-sighted, he might have noticed a not unfamiliar face—the face of his nephew's manservant—very close to them several times in the crush, and he might also have observed that his daughter's hands seemed busy unfastening something under her opera cloak. What he did notice just as they reached home was that his daughter's necklace was gone.
"Jennie, where's your necklace?" he exclaimed suddenly.
She put her hand to her throat and started. "Papa, it's gone! I must have lost it in the crush! What are we to do?"
They drove back to the theatre, but in vain; they searched the carriage, but in vain; and finally drove to Scotland Yard. By ten o'clock next morning there were bills out offering five hundred pounds reward for the finder of a diamond necklace, description given; and by midday notes for that amount had found their way into Geoffrey Chester's hands, and Jennie was rejoicing over the return of her necklace. When Mr. Durban returned from the city that evening, he found his nephew awaiting him. Geoffrey was prompt to explain his presence.
"You promised me Jennie, sir, if I could tell you that I was free from debt, and, on my honour, I am."
"And you've not sold your commission?" Mr. Durban asked somewhat dubiously.
"Certainly not, sir."
"Humph. Very well, then; I'm a man of my word. Jennie's in the drawing-room and dinner will be ready in twenty minutes."
Five years afterwards they told him all about that last five hundred pounds. It is his favourite after-dinner story now; and Burditt has very good reason to consider that evening which he spent hanging about outside Drury Lane Theatre the most fortunate evening of his life. He is quite the head of the household at Chester Court; and Mr. Durban, a frequent visitor there, never departs without alluding to that little circumstance in a gratifying and stolid manner. He was cheated out of his daughter, he declares; and Geoffrey acknowledges that he only won his wife by luck and a trick—his luck and her trick. But they all seem very happy about it; and amongst the penates at Chester-Court are a handbill, a reward of five hundred pounds for a certain diamond necklace, a soiled yellow letter signed "Thomas Gretton," and an engraving of "The Monk."
I have written the title of this, my true story, and my eyes have wandered for a moment to the mirror which hangs almost directly in front of me. Strange that I should find myself smiling when but a short while ago I had sat down to my task so full of seriousness and deliberation. Yet so it is. I am smiling, and I cannot help myself. Look with me into the mirror, and see whether you cannot also find cause for mirth in the incongruity between my appearance and the mighty subject of ghosts. What can a somewhat portly, good-humoured, and, my friends say, pleasant-looking woman, of little over forty years old, know about ghosts? There are no troubled lines in my face, no nerveless glitter in my eyes, or look of apprehension lurking about my countenance; I am altogether an unromantic looking personage, devoid of superstition, lacking in imaginative power, and possessed of a very fair supply of common-sense. And yet I alone amongst the living can tell the true story of the Ghost of Culbone Tower.
To do so I must go back to the days of my earliest childhood. I was born not many miles from Lynton, on the north coast of Devonshire, and I was an only child. Our home was a beautiful one—beautiful, indeed, seems a weak word. The house, perched on a narrow plateau of green turf, literally overhung the sea four hundred feet below, and above us a forest of pine trees stretched away precipitously to the head of the cliff. The only approach to it was by a steep winding path, dangerous after dark, and never safe for strangers, of whom, however, we saw none. The place is now a common resort of tourists; but in the days of my girlhood tourists were scarce; and if one did, by chance, present himself at the lodge gate, old Andrews knew better than to admit him. To have done so would have resulted in his instant dismissal.
From the sea our dwelling-place must have seemed perfectly inaccessible, owing to the steepness of the cliff above, and the sheer descent. Many a time have I seen yachts brought in as near to the rock-strewn coast as the pilot would allow, that their owners or passengers might level their glasses with wonderment at our strangely situated abode. But I fancy that what most excited their wonderment was the curious little tower built on the summit of a huge boulder of bracken-covered rock, which seemed ever threatening to fall upon us and crush our frail tenement like a house of cards. Who built it, and wherefore, no one can tell. There were legends about it, of course, which, at a later period, were raked up and eagerly discussed by a terror-stricken community. But any authentic record as to its builder or its intended purpose was wanting. There it stood, like a Rhenish tower—massive, picturesque, of quaint foreign architecture, and, at the time when I best remember it, an object of ceaseless dread and terror to every member of our little household. Between it and the house yawned a cleft-like chasm, into the bottom of which, at high tide, the sea came curling in. At one time, before my recollection, there had been a hand-bridge across; and my father would often go and smoke there, and even persuade such of his friends that were sure-footed and free from dizziness to accompany him. But that was many years before I reached girlhood, and I never thought of it, or heard it mentioned, save with bated breath and shuddering awe.
Well had it earned its evil reputation, for it had been the scene of the terrible tragedy which cast a deep gloom over my early life. My father had been one of three sons, who had lived with their widowed mother at a place called Munster Castle, on the borders of Exmoor, some ten miles inland. Of these three sons my father, Frank Catherall, had been the eldest. Next to him came Francis, and the name of the younger was Cecil. Like many other mothers, Mrs. Catherall leaned most to her youngest son, and failed altogether in concealing her preference. All three were strangely alike, in disposition—stern, and reserved, with hot, fierce tempers, but generous withal, and passionately devoted to their mother. My father married first, and came to live at Glencoombe, where I was born. My mother never got on very well with old Mrs. Catherall, but there was no actual unpleasantness, and I have faint recollections of some very early visits to Munster Castle. She, on her part, never returned these visits, but invariably excused herself on account of the peculiar situation of our house an excuse against which we could urge nothing, for certainly the descent to it was by no means a pleasant one for any one unaccustomed to the cliffs. Both my uncles were frequent visitors, however, and were welcomed warmly whenever they came. All three brothers seemed to be the closest of friends, and spent most of their time fishing, or shooting, or hunting together. They were popular in the neighbourhood, and were generally supposed to be as they appeared—on the best of terms.
One November afternoon—how well I remember it!—they had all three gone out shooting over Dunkery Beacon. I was sitting at the window, wondering how long it would be before they returned, when suddenly the door opened, and my father entered the room. Directly I saw him I knew that something terrible had happened. His face, usually ruddy and sunburnt, was ghastly pale; and he tottered rather than walked into the room. I was curled up on the floor reading, but I sprang up at once and ran over to him. I cried out to know what had happened. "Don't ask me," he answered in a fearfully hollow voice; "don't ask me." He took me in his arms and kissed me a great number of times; and when he put me down, he said good-bye. I asked him where he was going, but, before he could answer, my mother, who had heard him in the hall, came down to know why he had returned so soon, and alone. He answered her never a word, but simply kissed her as he had been doing me, until she got frightened and began to cling to him and cry. Then he turned his head away with a great sob, and rushed out of the room without another word. I tried to follow, but he had locked the door. I heard him talking for a few moments with Perkins outside, and then he hurried out of the house. My mother was ringing the bell violently; but though the servants came to the door at once, they could not get us out, for my father had taken the key with him in his pocket. While they were trying some other keys, I remembered the side window, and running to it, jumped out upon the lawn. What I saw made me sink dumb and helpless to the ground. The cry which I tried to force out froze upon my lips, and my limbs refused their office. On the other side of the chasm, standing on a part of the smooth boulder where I had often heard him say that he would not trust himself for a thousand pounds, was my father, holding in his hand the little hand-bridge by which he had crossed, and which he seemed to have caught up, to prevent Perkins from following him. While I watched him he flung the frail piece of carpentry down into the chasm, and from side to side I heard it rumble and bump until, with a sickening crash, it reached the bottom, and struck against the jagged edge of a rock, when in half a dozen rapid strides my father reached the other side of the boulder; and it flashed upon me that he meant to cast himself into the sea. For a moment he straightened himself, and I saw his powerful, massive form standing out as it were against the sky, when throwing his arms over his head with a wild, despairing gesture, he crouched down for the spring. I fell on my face, faint and trembling; when I looked up again, roused by a horrified shout from Perkins, he was gone.
After that I lost all consciousness, and for weeks I lay between life and death. When I slowly regained my senses, I found the one subject which I was burning yet dreading to hear about was denied me. No one would talk to me all about my father. No one would tell me why he had done that fearful deed. To mention the tower before any of the servants was sufficient to send them trembling from the room. My mother would faint if I even tried to talk about my unhappy father, and Perkins strenuously refused to come near me for fear of being questioned.
As I grew stronger, I began to think it strange that neither of my uncles ever came to see us in our great sorrow. When I mentioned this to my mother, she was seized with great trembling, and bade me never mention them again. I had made up my mind, however, to be kept in ignorance no longer, and I was persistent. I would know everything. If they refused to tell me, I would run away to Castle Munster and find out from my grandmother, or from the servants there. I was so positive that my mother at last gave way, and leaning back in her chair amidst frequent storms of sobs and tears, she told me all that had happened.
I listened hungrily, standing back in a far corner of the solemnly darkened room, and with my eyes riveted upon the thick folds of crape which hung about my mother's frail form, I heard now that scarcely an hour after my father had cast himself from the summit of Culbone Tower news came that my uncle Francis had been picked up from amongst the rocks below Bossington headland, dead, and with unmistakable marks of violence about his throat. An inquest was held upon the body, and an old shepherd, who had been ascending the hill from Allercombe, deposed, with great reluctance, that he had seen, far away from him, the figures of two men struggling together on the verge of the cliff, and that one had cast the other over. Then my uncle Cecil had been called upon, and in a low tone, and amongst the deep sympathy of every one present, he had told his tale. They had all three been shooting together, he said, and were returning by the cliffs. There had been a slight unpleasantness between his two brothers during the earlier part of the day, and it suddenly blazed out again into a fierce quarrel as they stood on Bossington headland, prepared to descend into Porlock. He himself had been a little way behind at the time of the crisis, adjusting the strap of his gaiter, and just as he was straightening himself and preparing to move forward the calamity had occurred. He could tell them no more, he said; nor could he, for, strong man though he was, he suddenly reeled against the table and was carried from the room in a dead faint. There was a profound sensation amongst the little body of sympathizing men; but, though the coroner pronounced the verdict in a broken voice, and with tears in his eyes, it was the only one which they dared give, and it was:
"Wilful murder against Frank Catherall."
My first impulse, on hearing this awful story, was to disbelieve it. But then I remembered the fiery temper of all the Catheralls, which had led many of them in days gone by to commit deeds as rash, if not so sinful. And I thought of my father's wild appearance when he had burst in upon us, and of his mad climb up to Culbone Tower and its fearful sequel. Then, too, I remembered my Uncle Cecil's reluctant evidence, and my heart sank. The web of testimony was too closely woven. My father had died a murderer—had cast himself into eternity with the curse of Cain upon his head...
Slowly the months dragged by at our lonely home, and, as winter drew on, a fresh terror crept in upon us. In the middle of the night strange sounds often came from the dreary tower which loomed almost over our heads, and with the whistling of the November wind came cries and moans which seemed to us, listening in awe and trembling, like the outpourings of an anguished spirit. Others heard them beside ourselves, and strange tales reached us of a tall, majestic figure, in flowing garb and long white beard, which, whenever a storm was raging, could be seen standing by the side of the tower, gazing out over the furious sea. Such tales as these spread, and one by one our servants left us. At first I was incredulous; but one afternoon at dusk, when the wild west wind was roaring down the coombs, and sheets of rain were rolling over the cliffs in curling clouds, I crept on my hands and knees along our tiny strip of lawn, and, soaked through and through, and dreading every moment lest I should be blown over the cliffs, I crouched down with my eyes fixed upon the tower. Then I too saw it. A chill, more icy than the driving rain or the cold earth could give, passed through my shuddering frame as I saw suddenly emerge from the tower the tall figure which I had know and loved so well. With swift, even footsteps he seemed to pass without effort up the slippery, almost perpendicular rock, where I knew that no mortal footsteps could tread without slipping and falling backward amongst the wet-bespangled heather—there, in the same place that I had seen him pause before, between earth and sky, he stood still for a moment.
"Father!" I cried, "father!" But the rushing wind driving in my face refused to carry the sound, and bore it back over my head. For a moment I closed my eyes, and when I re-opened them again the figure was gone. Then I knew that I had seen my dead father's spirit.
For a while I dared not look upon the scene of this terrible apparition; and when I told my mother what I had seen, she too was overwhelmed with fear, for she was by nature nervous, although I was not. One afternoon, however, not many weeks afterwards, I summoned up my courage and walked almost to the edge of the chasm, gazing steadily up at the frowning tower above me. There was no sign of life there, mortal or ghostly, and gradually I felt my fears subside. I was just turning away with a sigh of relief, when I heard the shuffle of footsteps, and found Perkins by my side.
He looked at me narrowly, almost suspiciously, for a moment.
"What be'st doing here, Miss Lizzie?" he asked, peering up at me from underneath his shaggy eyebrows. "Dost want to see t' poor master's ghost? You'll no see it in fine weather. He'll only come to us in a storm."
"You have seen it, then?" I exclaimed eagerly. "Perkins, why does he come? It is awful!"
The old man turned round upon me, his voice in trembling anger.
"Why do 'e come, Miss Lizzie? Ay, you may well ask that. How do 'e think a poor spirit can rest in its dark watery grave when it's been so sorely wronged? I tell 'e this," he continued hoarsely, holding his withered arms out towards the sea, with a dramatic, almost majestic, gesture, "never'll his spirit rest quiet, never'll the waves give up his body for decent burial, till Master Cecil Catherall takes back his lying words, and the whole world knows as my poor dear master was no murderer. I tell 'e that, Miss Lizzie; I tell 'e that!"
He shuffled away, leaving me almost paralysed by his strange words. Latterly we had come to look upon Perkins as weak in the head, and he spent all his time rambling about the place, no one knew where; but his words were spoken with such intense earnestness, that they made a strange impression on me. All day long I was restless and uneasy, but in the morning I had come to a decision. I would go and see my Uncle Cecil.
The next morning, before any one was astir, I started on my solitary expedition, leaving word only that I had gone for a long walk. Since the day of that terrible tragedy we had had no visit or message from either my grandmother or my uncle, and I felt not a little nervous at the idea of presenting myself before stern old Mrs. Catherall, who disliked my mother, and had never taken much notice of me. But for my age I had a wonderful amount of resolution, and I never shrank from my self-imposed task. The road to Munster Castle lay across a great stretch of moorland, radiant with a purple glory and with gleaming yellow gorse in the summer, but barren and desolate-looking on that chill November morning. White clouds of mist came rolling down from the hills, at times soaking me through, and often I had to wade through the swollen streams which flowed across the rough track. Still I held on, though at times there came gusts of wind which carried me nearly off my feet, and though the path grew no better than the bed of a mountain torrent. At times a solitary signpost standing out against the grey sky or the black hills cheered me on my way; but not a human being did I meet till, after five hours of walking, the dreary towers of Munster Castle rose up before me. How my heart throbbed then! I forgot how faint and weary I was as I entered the great courtyard and timidly rang the bell. No one answered the summons; so, as the door was open, I walked inside and sat down upon one of the carved oak chairs. Presently a tall, grave-looking servant came across the hall, and started back in amazement at the sight of me. I rose and explained my presence.
"You'll not be able to see Mr. Cecil, Miss," he said, staring at me as though I were a wild creature. "He only came home from abroad yesterday; that is to say, he was brought home ill. I'll tell Mrs. Catherall, though, if you'll be pleased to take a seat. She's with him now."
He moved away and opened a door on the opposite side of the hall. I watched my opportunity, and followed him noiselessly through two great rooms into a smaller one, on the threshold of which he paused and said something to its inmates in a subdued tone. Before he had finished I had slipped past him and had entered the apartment.
In an invalid's chair, nearly smothered with magnificent furs, and drawn up before a blazing fire, lay my Uncle Cecil. His face was thin and haggard, and his great brown eyes seemed burning with a fierce but weary light. By his side stood my grandmother, majestic and handsome as ever, with her grey hair coiled in many plaits about her head, and an angry light gleaming in her still bright eyes.
"Child, how dared you come here?" she said in a low tone full of intense vibrating anger. "Who are you?"
Before I could answer, my Uncle Cecil had sprung up from his couch with a quick, startled exclamation.
"My God!" he cried, "it is his child! It is Frank's child! What does she want?"
I moved towards him, quivering with excitement, and striving to steady my voice.
"Uncle Cecil," I cried, "I have come to you because my father's ghost is crying out night and day from Culbone Tower, and Perkins says that it will never be quiet until you speak. I am come to know all about the day when Uncle Francis was killed."
Such a cry as mortal lips have seldom uttered burst from my grandmother's trembling lips. Uncle Cecil was shaking all over like a man stricken with a deadly ague. I gazed from one to the other, frightened, bewildered, yet not one whit disposed to withdraw my question.
It was my grandmother who recovered first.
"Child," she exclaimed in a tone tremulous with passion, "why have you come here with this mad story about your father's ghost? What can your uncle know about that miserable day that he has not already declared? Go home at once; or, stay, I will send some one home with you," and she stretched out her hand towards the bell.
He stopped her quietly, but firmly. There was a new look in his face which I liked little to look upon, although it gave me hope.
"Mother," he said calmly, "the time has come to speak. I will not die with this sin upon my conscience. Child! Lizzie your father was no murderer. It was I who threw Francis over the cliff."
I looked at him, and thought that I must be dreaming. With a great sob of agony my grandmother had thrown her arms around his neck, and was imploring him to be silent.
"He is raving," she said to me excitedly. "Take no notice of him; he is raving. Cecil, my darling, what good can this do? Be silent; oh, be silent, for my sake!"
"Mother, I cannot," he faltered. "God have mercy upon me, I cannot! Lizzie, ring the bell!"
Mechanically I obeyed him. He asked a question of the servant who appeared, which was answered in the affirmative. A minute or two later a clergyman was shown into the room.
"Mr. Greyson," said my Uncle Cecil, stretching out his hand imploringly to where my grandmother kneeled on the floor beside him, "I want you to listen to a few words from me. I am going to tell you the truth about my brother Francis's death."
A deep groan from the prostrate figure by his side, and my uncle passed his hand across his forehead as though the task was almost beyond his strength.
"On that afternoon," he continued hoarsely, "Francis had spoken bitter but just words to me about a matter in which I was much to blame. While we waited at Bossington Hill for Frank, who was some distance behind, he recurred to the subject, and told me what steps he had decided to take in it. I called him an impertinent meddler, and struck him. We closed together, and in the struggle I threw my brother over the cliff. Frank came up just in time to witness the awful deed. For some minutes we could neither of us speak. Then, trembling with horror and fear, I stammered out a few wild words.
"'Cecil,' he cried, with his hands upon my shoulders, 'God help you! I am the only one who saw this. I will die sooner than give evidence against you, remember that. Get home now, and say it was an accident.'
"He rushed away from me, and before I reached home I heard of his death. Then the shepherd came to me who had seen the struggle, and I was at my wits' end. Frank had died to save me. Should I let his sacrifice be in vain, or should I tell a lie which could hurt his memory only? I told the lie, and it has killed me; it has eaten the life away within me. I am a dying man, Mr. Greyson; and with the knowledge that in a day or two I shall stand before my God, I swear that this is the truth. I implore you to fetch a magistrate."
They took but little notice of me; and when Mr. Greyson left them, I slipped out, and, heedless of the wind and rain, started homeward. Across the bleak, desolate moor I sped, revelling in the wild blasts which swept down the mountain's side upon me, for I knew that the storm was increasing, and he would be there to-night. I reached home; but, avoiding the house, I stepped out on to the tiny strip of lawn, and, holding tightly on to the iron railing, crept along towards the chasm. When I reached it, I could see nothing but the sea below, curling and hissing, sweeping in with a long hungry roar, and dashing its foaming spray far up the side of the cliff. Above me the fast-moving leaden clouds seemed descending almost within reach, and a hurricane was raging amongst the thickly-grown pine trees, whistling with a fierce mirth amongst their slender tops, shaking together with a harsh grating the cones, and bending them down like blades of grass. I crouched in a corner, waiting in awe till this fierce revelry of the elements should subside a little, and straining my eyes through the darkness to catch sight of the tower which loomed directly in front of me. Suddenly I heard a voice close to my side.
"Miss Lizzie, what in God's name are you doing here?"
I peered out into the darkness, and recognized the dim outline of Perkins' bent form.
"Perkins," I cried, "I have been to Castle Munster and seen Uncle Cecil. It was he who killed his brother. He is dying; and he has confessed."
He seized me by the shoulders, with a strange light in his bleared eyes. "Be you lying? Tell me quick—"
"It is true," I cried, frightened by his vehemence. "The ghost will trouble us no longer."
"The Lord be praised!" he muttered. "God! what's that?"
Two young pine trees, torn up by their roots, were whirled across the lawn close to us, and, smashing through the iron palisading as though it had been rotten timber, disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
The old man fell on his knees, and prayed for a moment or two. Then he stood up, holding on to the remnant of the railing.
"I seen many a storm in my life," he muttered, "but ne'er such a one as this. God grant the tower may stand! Miss Lizzie, ye're a brave child. Dare yer follow me?"
I nodded. The wind would have Mocked at my efforts at speech had I attempted it.
"Come, then!" He moved slowly forward to the very verge of the chasm, dragging something behind him. I followed on hands and knees.
He paused and threw a rough plank across to the boulder on which the tower stood. He stepped carefully across, and presently I heard his voice from the other side.
"I ha' made it fast, Miss Lizzie. Dare 'e come?" I crept to the edge and looked down with a shudder at the black yawning chasm.
"Shall I see the ghost, Perkins?" I cried.
"Ay, ay," he answered. "See!" and he half roused himself from the bracken amongst which he had been crouching, and pointed with a long trembling finger towards the tower. To my amazement there was a feeble light burning in the topmost chamber.
"I will come, Perkins," I cried. "Walt for me."
I knelt down, clinging to a shrub until there was a momentary lull in the gusts which came tearing and roaring down the coomb. Then I sprang up, and, holding my breath, hurried across the frail little bridge. The moment I was in safety we commenced the ascent to the tower; but we had got little more than halfway up when another burst of wind and rain came round the corner of the coomb, and we had to sink down amongst the wet bracken and dig our fingers into the very earth to save ourselves from being carried away and swept over the edge of the cliff. There we lay, cowed and shuddering, for what seemed to me an interminable while, listening to the wild, melancholy shrieking of the wind amongst the pine trees, and the loud angry roaring of the furious sea below. At last it seemed to abate a little, and almost on our hands and knees we crept up to the door of the tower. My heart was beating with a fierce excitement, increased by all that I had gone through during that wonderful day, and I seemed to have a distinct consciousness that something extraordinary was going to happen.
Perkins pushed open the door with his foot, and we tumbled together into the narrow chamber. A tall figure sprang from the other end of the place towards us, and at first I shrank away in an agony of fear; but then I heard my name in well-remembered accents, and saw a familiar pair of arms stretched out towards me, and my fear died away. "Father," I cried, "father!", and with one bound I threw myself into the passionate embrace of the Ghost of Culbone Tower.
That same night, after my tale had been told, my father abandoned his self-imposed exile, and returned with me to Glencoombe. On the morrow news reached us of my Uncle Cecil's death; but his confession had been signed and witnessed, and my father found himself a hero.
For a while we continued to live at Glencoombe. But so constant was the stream of visitors who came to gaze upon the haunted tower, and over the edge of the rock on to the shelf-like plateau which had served as a hiding-place, that to escape them we moved to Munster Castle, which, since the death of Mrs. Catherall—she had not long survived her favourite son—had become my father's property. And there I lived until my name was no longer Catherall, and some one took me away to another part of the country; but seldom a year goes by that we do not return for a while to Munster Castle, and our stay there never passes without at least one picnic on the heights of Culbone Tower.
Although I am not by any means a fatalist, nor have I the slightest inclination to worship at the shrine of that mighty but fickle goddess Chance, I am, nevertheless, perfectly willing to admit that chance is responsible for this revelation. I am not a reader of fiction, nor do I take in a single magazine or periodical; yet somehow there fell into my hands a few days ago, by one of the most curious of accidents, the current issue of a notable magazine, and my fingers, straying listlessly over it, opened it at a story which I read from beginning to end without a pause, and which has made a most extraordinary impression upon me.
The author of that story states at the outset that he has written it with the sole object of relieving himself of a dreadful secret, and that in doing so he has found some consolation. This may be true, or it may be merely the cunning statement of a wily writer, who seeks by its means to more effectually rivet the attention and increase the interest of his readers. I prefer to believe that the former is the case, and that he has set down his story in plain, simple language, hoping that, by sharing with the world the knowledge of his brief communion with unknown powers, be may gain some respite from the ever-increasing agony of torturing recollections. And if this be so, and if he has indeed derived some measure of consolation by such means, why should I not do likewise? Why should not I also make an effort to escape from the haunting sorrow which every year casts a long shadow of gloom over my life? I have asked Marguerite, and she is not averse to the idea. We hug our terrible secret the doser, because none other knows of it. Let it go from us, and perchance it will seem stripped of some of its horrors when we know that the world at large is either scoffing at it as an idle sensational story, or is dealing out to us its sympathy. Yes, I have decided that it shall be done, and Marguerite looks over my shoulder approvingly whilst I write these lines.
If by some strange process there could be expunged from the calendar one day—the thirtieth day of August—then should I be amongst the happiest of men. For what else is there to trouble me? I am rich, and held in good esteem amongst my fellows, so that such society that I care for I can enjoy. My home is the envy of all men who look upon it, as Marguerite, my beloved wife, by far the greatest source of all my happiness, is still the same to me as when I wooed her amongst the bending rushes and on the tranquil blue waters of Lake Luigi. One cloud alone, the reflection that the inexorable hand of time will soon bring round again that hateful date, can dim for a moment our serene happiness. And when it comes, we draw closer still to each other, and, hand in hand, we suffer in silence. Ah, the misery, the deep depressing misery of it!
Nineteen years ago I saw for the first time Marguerite, my wife. Marguerite Ellière she was then—Marguerite Trevannion is now her name but, strange though it may seem, days before I saw her I was wildly in love with her.
It happened thus: I had made up my mind to spend the winter in Rome, and had engaged rooms and a studio; for I was something of an artist, though it was rather a pastime than a profession with me. I had scarcely settled down to my work, however, before a strange mood of dissatisfaction with my surroundings and occupation came over me. It was the height of the season, and the crowds of fashionable Americans and English people who were crowding into Rome seemed to me to stultify the artistic associations of the Italian capital, and to render commonplace its most sacred objects. I began to meet acquaintances, to be asked out to dinner, to be visited at my studio, and, in short, to be subject to the same annoyances to escape which I had wandered away from England. For a while I put up with it, though my work and my temper suffered seriously. But one morning, after a prolonged visit from a bevy of the merest acquaintances, who took up the whole of my working day, and drove me to the verge of distraction by their shallow criticisms and shallower small-talk, I felt that the limits of my endurance had been passed. On the morrow I locked up my studio and left Rome. At first I had some thoughts of going northwards, and of burying myself for a season of hard work in one of the most retired of the provincial towns. But the chance mention in my hearing of a place which I had never visited induced me to decide otherwise. I crossed the Straits of Messina, and in three days I found myself in Palermo.
For a fortnight I lived here the life I loved best to lead. I rose early and made long excursions into the surrounding country, painted when the whim seized me, and in the evenings I smoked my pipe on the Marina, listening to the band and drinking in with deep draughts of lazy enjoyment the soft, voluptuous air of the long summer nights. I mixed but little with the people, and shunned the noisy cafés; but for all that it was not long before I heard a piece of news which all Palermo was eagerly engaged in discussing. The divine Marguerite was coming—Marguerite Elliere, the songstress of the world, the woman whose favour the monarchs of Europe had vied with each other to obtain, that they might listen to the music of her voice; Marguerite, the Russian nightingale, the spirit of the north, whose song no man could hear and forget—and, with her, her brute of a husband.
I was but little interested in the news. Music was the one of the arts which I cared least for, and the excitement of the Palermitans seemed to me somewhat absurd. Besides, she was not coming to sing at all; she was coming, as it was everywhere announced, merely for a change and rest. As a singer I might have been prepared to do a certain amount of homage to her (to the extent of going to hear her sing, at any rate), but as a woman I could not summon up for a single spark of enthusiasm; and so when she arrived, and all Palermo flocked round her carriage and strewed her way with flowers, I was lounging about the palatial open corridors of the Convent of San Martino, many miles away from the scene of her triumphal progress.
The following night was one which will dwell in my memory for ever. I had lingered on the Marina, lounging on a seat at its furthest extremity, until it was almost deserted. The band had played the National Hymn—a strange medley of rugged chords it is—and had departed to enjoy a well-earned rest at a late café; the carriages of the Palermitan nobility had long since left the esplanade; and save for a few loiterers like myself, who found it hard to tear themselves away from the subtle witchery of the southern night, every one in Palermo seemed to have retired. But I was so steeped in a sort of placid content that until long past midnight I sat there, my eyes drinking in the inimitable beauty of the scene—now dwelling upon the white villas and terrace-fronted houses of the old town, deluged with the golden light of the southern moon; now wandering over the glittering surface of the violet sea, all alight and glowing with the reflection of the star-bespangled sky, and more than once resting on the towering rocky promontories which stood out in the bay like giant sentinels watching over the repose of the old Sicilian town. On the heavy air the lustrous perfume of many sweet-scented flowers, mingled with the aromatic odour from the thickly growing cinnamon and orange groves, floated and hung about; and, save the low murmur of the sea as it swept in upon the yielding sands, there was no sound to break in upon the enchantment of the perfect stillness. Surely the mantle of night had never fallen upon a fairer scene!
I had fallen into a sort of dreamy torpor, and my cigar had burnt itself out between my fingers. Then all of a sudden I was galvanized into a state of acute passionate excitement.
Across the glistening waters of the bay came a sound which set every nerve in my body tingling and every pulse throbbing with a tumult of uncontrollable feelings. A human voice I thought at first that it could not be. What human heart could have held the sorrow which floated across the still water to my ear like the anguished wail of a despairing spirit? And yet, as it grew in force, and rose and fell with all the cadence of the most exquisite music, I knew that it was a human voice, the voice of a woman, singing out to the midnight sky the bitterness of pent-up agony and a breaking heart.
I rose from my seat breathless and trembling. Others had crept on tip-toe to the spot, and stood listening with me; but until the last chord had died away the silence amongst us was unbroken. Then some one whispered—
"It is the diva!"
"Where is she?" I asked, bewildered.
The man looked at me in surprise. Probably I was the only being in Palermo who did not know the temporary dwelling-place which Marguerite Elliere and her husband, had chosen.
"There, on the hill of Ulysses," he answered, pointing to what was really a huge rock about a quarter of a mile out in the bay. "The villa belongs to her husband, Count Muzatti, though he has never occupied it before."
"Her husband! She is married, then?" I remarked, more for the sake of continuing the conversation than from actual ignorance of the fact.
"Married! poor girl! Yes; she is married to one of the greatest blackguards Sicily ever produced. Count Muzatti is a scoundrelly adventurer, who lives on his wife's money and ill-treats her. She must be an angel to bear it as she does."
"She must be an angel to sing like that," I remarked absently, with my face turned towards the sea, and my eyes straining through the darkness towards that vineyard-covered rock.
My companion—he was evidently a Palermitan of gentle birth—answered gravely, almost reverently—
"Such a gift as hers must raise her high above other women. As an artist she is divine, and as a woman she is amongst the best. Scandal has never reached her, nor will it ever. She is as faithful to her drunkard husband as he is faithless to her. Beast I wish monsieur good-night."
He raised his hat courteously, and moved away. Late though it was, I did not follow him. It seemed as though I could not leave the spot My whole being had been stirred by that mournful music into a state of passionate tumult. I was in love with a voice.
On the morrow I saw her. She was coming down the steep sloping vineyard to the sea when I sailed by her rocky home dangerously near. A white morning-gown hung in straight folds about her tall, slim figure, and her deep, full eyes glanced placidly into mine for a moment as I sailed by. It was only for a moment, for my too eager gaze startled her, and she turned her head away with a gesture which had in it a suspicion of hauteur. But I had seen her, and I was satisfied. I knew that her song was indeed the wailing of her heart; for a great weariness was written into her perfect face, and the light of an ineffable sorrow was reflected from her deep eyes.
I am a man of strange moods, which in those days of my youth were more my master than they are now. I was passionately in love with Marguerite Elliere, and I feared to trust myself in the same country with her and her brute of a husband. Rapidly I made all my preparations for leaving Sicily, and determined that I would do so without seeing her or hearing again the magical heart-stirring music of her voice. But fate would have it otherwise. On the day before my intended departure I was returning alone from a farewell visit to the Convent of San Martino, when, as I neared the last mountain pass before the descent into the Plain of Palermo commenced, I heard the sound of firearms and the cry of a woman in distress. How it thrilled me! for I knew that no other voice save hers had uttered that cry for help. What followed I need not dwell upon. When I turned the corner and dashed down the hillside I saw her husband making a feeble resistance against a couple of brawny black-bearded robbers, whilst another had dared to lay his great coarse hand upon her mouth to stop her cries. My sudden appearance amongst them gave me an advantage, which their wonder increased when they saw me, in a wild passion of anger, deal the man who had touched her such a blow that he fell to the ground like a log, with his arm stretched up to the sky, and the last word he ever uttered quivering upon his lips. At any rate, when I turned to assist her husband, his assailants, not noticing that I was unarmed, fumed, and fled.
It was a strange scene, a strange position for me to be in. We were in the middle of a narrow winding road which seemed cut out of the solid rock, shut in on one side by a sheer bare ascent, whilst on the other the slope was more gradual, and was thickly planted with vineyards and olive trees, through the leaves of which we could see the Plain of Palermo stretched out like a panorama below. Wild hyacinths of many colours grew out from clefts in the hard grey rock, perfuming the air already heavy with the musky aromatic scent from the distant orange groves; and away where the western sky stooped to meet the silvery waters of the Mediterranean, the sun was sinking down, tinging the sea and clouds alike with brilliant streaks of orange and purple. It was a fine scene, but I had eyes only for the woman who stood before me with an eloquent look of gratitude in her sweet sad eyes, and a winning smile parting her lips. If she had been afraid, the fear had surely been but transitory, for her statuesque perfect face betrayed no other emotion than of slight kindliness towards me.
"Signor we have much to thank you for," she said in a low musical tone. "Is it not so, Albert?"
She turned to her husband, and my eyes followed hers. I saw a middle-aged man, under the middle height, and inclined to corpulency, of whose personal appearance it was impossible to form any just idea, for his olive complexion was green with fear, and he was still half lying in the road, crouching down in the dust with half-closed eyes, and apparently in a state of semi-consciousness.
"Are you hurt, Albert?" she inquired anxiously.
He made no immediate answer, and we both moved to his side. He looked up at us blinking, and then staggered to his feet with an oath. For a moment I forgot that she was his wife, and I made no effort to keep the contempt I felt from my face. Perhaps she saw it; at any rate, a faint tinge of pink stole into her face, and when she addressed him again her tone was singularly cold.
"Albert, will you not thank this gentleman for his help?"
He held out a little white hand, which, with its multitude of rings, was certainly very unlike a man's; and having at last convinced himself that all danger was over, he was certainly voluble enough in his gratitude, and in his anger against the ruffians who had dared to molest him. To escape from him I knelt down to examine the man whom I had struck. He was dead.
"Serve him right!" exclaimed the count, spurning the prostrate body with his foot. "Dog of a robber!
"Dead! and you only struck him one blow," she said, in an awed tone. "You must be fearfully strong," she added, shuddering.
"His hands were upon you," I answered in a low voice, and to me it seemed justification enough.
We descended the hill, all three together, to where their carriage was waiting; then, while they fetched the body of the dead robber, we rested under a clump of olive trees, and afterwards I returned to Palermo with them. Count Muzatti pressed me hard to accompany them to their villa; but at first I refused—I felt that I could scarcely trust myself with the man whom I had already learned to despise, and the woman whom I loved. But at a word from her I was powerless; I went.
Well do I remember that night. We dined together at a little round table, in a deliciously shaded room hung with many-coloured lights which only half dispelled the pleasant, dreary twilight. Through the open windows the evening breeze stole gently in, with just sufficient vigour to keep the heavy odour of hyacinths and aloes and many other wild flowers from becoming oppressive, and in our ears there was ever the pleasant, rippling sound of the waves as they broke round the corner of the rock and swept in towards the shore.
At the commencement of the meal my host was inclined to be talkative, and his manner was distinctly courteous. But, alas! a change soon came. I saw Marguerite's face grow clouded and troubled, and watched her make more than one faint ineffectual appeal to her husband. But it was in vain. Time after time he emptied his glass with the reckless abandon of an habitual drunkard, and from comparative volubility he relapsed gradually but surely into sudden boorishness. I glanced from his coarse, sensual face and weak mil eyes into the face of the woman who called him husband—delicate, refined, spiritually beautiful, although at that moment contracted with pain, and a wild longing came upon me to sever the bond which joined a beast to an angel by throwing him out of the wide-open windows into the swiftly running sea below. Conversation had altogether ceased between us, and it was a relief to me when she rose and, silently placing some cigarettes upon the table, Left the room. I dared not remain behind, and so I followed her; but it was with the intention of leaving the place at once, for I dared not trust myself either with him or her. I had been a fool to come.
Outside, leaning over the iron railing which skirted the precipitous side of the rock, with her sad eyes travelling over the restless sea, I found her, and for a while I stood by her side in silence. The land breeze carried to our ears the hum of voices, and the faint strains of the band from the distant Marina; but the moon had not yet risen, and a long semicircle of twinkling light was all we could see of the town. Then I began to talk to her, making no mention at first of her husband, but seeking to win her forgetfulness for the while of her hideous trouble. And I succeeded, for presently it was she who was talking and I listening while she spoke of the many countries she had visited, and with an enthusiasm which nothing else could provoke, of her beloved art. The hours stole away like minutes to me, until at last the time came when I must go. She held out her hand with a half-regretful gesture, and I clasped it firmly in mine.
"I may come and see you again," I begged. "Let me bring my sketches and show them to you."
I think that she would have consented, but that she chanced to look into my eyes and to read my secret there. She drew back at once, with all the old trouble flooding into her face, and turned a little away from me.
"I think you had better not," she said in a low tone. "Nay, I would rather that you did not."
A bitter despair laid hold of me, and forced me to speak. I pointed to the open window.
"Will it be always like this for you?" I asked.
She bowed her head. "I am his wife."
Then I touched her fingers with my lips, and turned away without another word. Who was I that I should tempt her?
High up in one of the least known passes of the Rocky Mountains we had pitched our nomad tent. All around and above us were snow-covered peaks, and we ourselves looked down upon the clouds, a giddy distance below. With a pipe in my mouth I sat taking a rapid sketch, whilst Jack Hallidean, the companion of my travels, stood on a ridge a few yards away, with a telescope in his hand. Suddenly he called me to him.
"Phil, what do you make of that?" he exclaimed eagerly, pointing downwards to one of the lower ranges and handing me the glass.
At first I could see nothing but a tiny black speck, but a closer examination showed me that it was moving steadily towards us.
"It's a man," I decided, handing him back the glass.
"Bravo, Jim!" shouted my companion, throwing his cap in the air and shutting up his telescope with a bang. "Splendid fellow, Jim. Said he'd be back in a week, and, by Jove! he's done it! Hullo, you fellows, there," he shouted to our two guides, who were taking their ease below, "come and make a fire here, quick—a jolly good blaze; Jim's in sight."
I went on with my sketching with a heavy heart. News from home was nothing to me. How I envied Jack Hallidean his cheerful light-heartedness, and the pile of letters which I knew he would soon receive.
In about a couple of hours Jim reached us. Nineteen letters and newspapers for Jack; for me a letter from my steward and another from my lawyer. I threw myself on the ground in front of the huge fire and carelessly opened one of the newspapers which Jack had thrown over to me.
Politics, marriages, general news. I wandered through the usual routine without much interest But suddenly I leaped to my feet with a cry, and, clenching the paper in my hand, bent close over the ruddy flames. It was one short paragraph which had awakened a sudden passionate interest in the life which only a few hours ago had seemed to me a wearisome burden—one short paragraph which told me of another man's death. Count Muzatti had committed suicide at Palermo in a drunken frenzy!
Wild thoughts and hopes surged into my brain, and with the paper clenched in my hand I walked rapidly up and down our little camping-ground. Jack's hand on my shoulder brought me to myself, and when I looked into his glowing face I knew, too, that he had had some great news.
"Phil," he exclaimed, "I'm beastly sorry, but I want to go back to England. The dearest girl in all the world has written to tell that—"
"Oh, it's all right!" I shouted joyfully, grasping him by the hand; "I want to go back too!"
"The deuce you do! Hurrah! England for ever! Why, you old misanthrope, you look ten years younger. Let's have a pipe by this glorious fire, and tell me all about it."
I told him, and hand and hand we wished one another luck over the dying embers of our signal-fire. In four months we landed at Liverpool.
I had thought that it would be an easy matter to discover the whereabouts of Marguerite Elliere. Events proved that I was mistaken. She had ceased to sing in public, and it was thought that she had taken another name. More than this I could not learn; and, after more than a year's eager search, it was by accident that I discovered her.
I was staying—a heavy-hearted wanderer—within a stone's-throw of one of the smallest and least visited of the Italian lakes, and on the evening of my arrival, tired though I was, the brilliancy of the night tempted me out upon the lake. A fairer night I had never seen. The moon was shining with all the clearness of day, but with the softness of a celestial eventide, upon the glasslike water, casting across it broad tracts of sparkling silvery light; and as I pulled slowly along, leaving in my wake a glistening trail, the soft splash of my oars was the only sound to be heard. Slowly I rowed on, leaving the lights of the hotel far away behind me, until I drew near an island almost in the centre of the lake. As I passed I could catch the dim outline of a low picturesque cottage, with lawn sloping right down to the water's edge, and the whole nearly hidden by the thickly growing trees which surrounded the little habitation. A charming little place I thought, and I shipped my oars, whilst I lit my pipe and had another look at it. And then the stillness of the night was suddenly broken, and my heart gave a great leap, for I knew that my search was over.
The voice of a woman singing came floating out from the low open windows and across the dark waters to my ears. Weirdly fascinating, exquisitely sad, there was but one woman in the world who could sing like that, and it was she whom I sought.
Breathless I waited, and the echoes of her song had scarcely died away before I saw her coming across the lawn towards me. With a gentle backward motion of my oars I sought the shelter of the trees which overhung the water, and waited.
In a moment or two she emerged from the shadows of the trees overhanging the garden walk, and stood full in the moonlight. To my dying day I shall think of her as I saw her then, leaning on the wooden rail and gazing across the lake with all the sorrow and profound melancholy in her marvellous dark eyes which her song had expressed. There was that same look—the look of hopeless, unchangeable agony—still written on her face; but, strange to say, it fascinated me more even than her wonderful loveliness. Beauty I had often seen, but it had been laughing and gay, dispensing favours, accepting homage, and it had never caused my heart to throb or my pulse to beat quicker as it did then. Suddenly a change came over her face. She shivered, and a spasm of agony seemed for a moment to contort her features, and the horrible thought flashed upon me that she meant to cast herself into the lake. As one in a dream I stretched my oars to the water, and with one strong swift stroke reached the landing stage. I sprang out, stood by her side, and in a voice which, despite my efforts to control it, trembled with passion, I called her by her name.
She knew me at once, and a great joy stole in upon me when I saw the colour flood her cheeks and a glad light sparkle for a moment in her eyes.
"You! you here! How did you—?" Her voice faltered, but I understood her.
"I was on the lake, and I heard you sing." Ah! she moved a little away from me, and I could see that she was trembling.
"I am not strong, and you have startled me," she said slowly. "Wait."
I bowed silently, and she vanished in one of the side walks.
How long I remained there I cannot tell; it might have been an hour, or it might have been only five minutes. For me, time was annihilated. I had but one thought—I had found her; and I should see her again.
She came back a different being—a lovely woman, dignified and charming—and she spoke to me in a regular, melodious voice, in which was no trace of agitation or distress.
"It seems strange that we should meet again," she said gently; and so unexpectedly. "How is it that you are on the lake so late?"
She stood by my side with her shapely white arm resting upon the railing, a queenly-looking woman, with the features of a Madonna and the eyes of a Sappho. I was still half dazed, stupefied by the fascination her presence had for me; and I answered mechanically—
"I am staying at the hotel yonder, and I came out in a boat. I heard you singing, and I knew your voice again," I concluded softly.
There was silence between us. The words that had been burning in my heart for years I dared not utter yet. So there was silence.
It was she at last who broke it.
"You must go," she said suddenly. "How cold it is getting!" And with a little shiver she drew the fleecy white shawl, which covered her head and shoulders, a little closer around her.
I had no excuse to linger, and my tongue seemed tied; so with leaden, unwilling footsteps, I turned away. I reached the landing-stage and looked around. She was still standing by the railing, and a sudden boldness came to me.
"May I come on the lake and hear you sing again?" I blurted out.
She hesitated. For one moment the old look of trouble came into her eyes, and I thought that she was going to refuse me altogether.
"I think you had better not," she said slowly, "but—"
"But what?" I interrupted eagerly.
"The lake isn't mine, is it? Good-night."
I had come to this place weary and disheartened with my long fruitless search, intending to make my way slowly southwards to Palermo; but, after my first night's adventure I never dreamed of carrying out my plans. Towards evening on the morrow I saw her again, concealed in the shadows of the drooping trees. I heard again that wonderful music floating out from the lonely house, and my heart throbbed, and every pulse in my body quickened with the hope of seeing her. She came, and, unchidden, I moored my boat and stood once more by her side, dizzy with joy and steeped in the happiness of her presence. She feigned anger, and my senses, sharpened by my great love, detected the feint, and I stayed. I did not leave until she promised that I should see her again on the morrow; and so I did, and many a morrow afterwards. Uncounted and unnoticed, the days went by, and gradually there dawned upon me a great hope, which filled me with a bewildering and at times an overpowering joy. Surely she was learning in some measure to return my passionate but unspoken love, for, ever watchful, I saw her eyes commence to brighten at my coming, and follow me regretfully when I left. But still I kept silent, for I dared not stake my every hope until I was assured of success.
One evening I found her in tears, and with the old look of intense melancholy in her face. It cut me to the heart to see her thus, and I implored her to tell me whether her grief was not one that I could lessen for her. She shook her head, and spoke of a dark, unhappy past. Mad with love, I caught her in my arms, and begged that she should forget the past in a future which my devotion should make happy. To my horror she turned away from me and shook her head. I was passionate, beseeching, imperious, and at last jealously suspicious. She bade me go, and I went.
Long before the next evening came I had repented, and her voice came out to me. The window was closed, and I waited in vain. At last I moored my boat, and clambering over the low paling, stole down to the house. I looked in through the windows. She was lying on a couch, weeping. It was enough for me. The window yielded to my impatient hands, and I stood before her. She started to her feet, and a glad look of welcome shone for a moment in her face. Then she motioned me away with an angry exclamation. But I was reckless with my great love. I caught her in my arms and called her mine; dared her to say she did not love me, and with her heart beating wildly against mine, burst into a passionate, frenzied appeal. She listened to me in silence—then she drew away, and, covering her face with her hands, spoke in a low, troubled tone. Again she hinted at a disgraceful past, the shadows of which still enveloped her. She would tell me her history, she said, and then we must part for ever; but with a great oath I stopped her. Her past was nothing to me. Let it be as a sealed book between us. The future was only our concern, and without her mine would be a blank.
Sinned against or sinning, rich or poor, of high or lowly birth, I cared not a whit. Let her come to me, and my love should shield her from all possible danger, and my name from a hateful past. In the end I prevailed, and with a choking cry of joy she threw herself into my arms, and when I left that night she was my affianced wife. Then was I the happiest man in the world, and full of unclouded bliss were the long days we dreamed away together, rowing about the lake, and holding fairy banquets in shady nooks or in out-of-the-way corners against the rushes. It was an idyllic courtship, ours; and it was to be a short one. In a month we were to be married.
As August slipped away there came a cloud. Marguerite's =timer changed, and the old melancholy look returned at times to her face. I was nervous, and spoke of consulting a physician. It was pure morbidness, I assured her; and she shook her head.
"In a week or two it will be over," she whispered; "until then, bear with me." But I was ill at ease and perplexed.
On the last evening but two of the month she made a strange request. She bade me at parting not to come on the morrow. I laughed, and thought it a jest. As if I could stop away, for even a day! Impossible! Nevertheless, I did stay away until the evening. My lawyer, whom I had summoned to meet me at the hotel, arrived, and, until late in the day, we were busy putting my affairs in order and drawing up the settlements which I had decided to make upon my wife. After dinner, however, I was free, and, taking a boat, I rowed across the lake. It was a full moon, but every now and then thick black clouds, hurrying across the sky, marred its light, and the first part of my journey was performed in perfect darkness. As I neared the island, however, there was an interlude of light, and I could see, to my joy, Marguerite standing on the steps waving her hand to me. I shouted a welcome, and bent forward to take a deep, strong stroke, which should carry me to her side, when suddenly something rose up in the water between us, and I paused horror-struck, whilst the oars nearly slipped away from my nervous fingers. A man, only partly dressed, with a white, fiendish-looking face and staring black eyes, was swimming on his side towards me; and, as my eyes fell upon him, he seemed to raise himself out of the water, and, by the vivid light of the moon, I saw the blood streaming out from a wound in his throat. For a moment I shrank back, paralysed with fear, for the face was familiar to me. I could neither speak nor move while the boat drifted towards him. Then with an effort I rose in my seat, and, throwing out an oar, bade him seize it. He never stirred. I drew nearer to him, and at last stretched out my hand to drag him into the boat. Oh, the horror of that moment! I grasped but the air. I thought I had miscalculated the distance, and I tried again, but my hand passed through him, meeting with no resistance; then the horrible truth came to me like a flash. This was no human form. My blood seemed to freeze within me, and, shuddering, I drew back into the boat. Then there was a wild shriek from the bank which told me that Marguerite, too, had seen this thing, and I saw her fall in a swoon. In a moment I was myself again, and, seizing the oars, I made for the landing-stage and leapt on shore. As I hastily secured the boat, I glanced round once more. A thick cloud had sailed in front of the moon, and the water, which just before had been glittering and sparkling in the silver light, was black and sullen. I turned with a shudder to the land, and sprang to Marguerite's side.
Lifeless, I carried her into the house, and for hours the old housekeeper and I tried by every means in our power to revive her. At last we were successful. She opened her eyes with a faint shiver, and then we carried her to her room. I spent the night in the garden, and by sunrise was by her side again. She was sleeping peacefully, so I left her undisturbed.
Later on in the morning she sent for me. I shrank from mentioning the awful event of the previous evening. It was she who spoke of it first. Calmly, but with a steady resolution, she bade me leave her for ever. It must be, she said. She was a guilty woman, and must bear alone the consequences of her guilt. She commanded me to leave her.
Then it was my turn to speak. My calmness and resolution matched hers. I refused emphatically to go. No matter her guilt, she had given herself to me, and, though she were steeped in crime, mine she should be. I wished to ask no questions; I desired no explanations; I simply demanded that she should keep her word.
Then she was driven to her last resource. Bending close over me, she whispered that she was a murderess. I refused to believe it. She went on to tell me her story. She spoke first of her husband, and told me, what I already knew—told me that he had been an irreclaimable drunkard, who had made her life a continued martyrdom. He had squandered her money, insulted her, was notoriously unfaithful to her, and even descended to blows. Still she had endured, doing all a woman could do to reclaim him, and receiving in return fresh insults, fresh blows, and brutal jests from drunken lips. At last matters came to a crisis, not very long after my visit to them at Palermo. In the middle of a long summer's night he had come home drunk and staggered to her apartments. She refused him admission. He burst open the door. She sought to pass him and escape, but he prevented her. She wrenched herself from his grasp, but he struck her down; and when she arose, sought to embrace her with maudlin affection. Mad with fear and loathing, she snatched a fancy stiletto from the mantelpiece, and as his arms folded around her, she struck blindly at him. He fell to the ground gasping; he was stabbed in the throat.
She rang the bell, and the servants came trooping in; a doctor was hastily summoned, and then with his last breath the dying man did the only good action of his wasted life.
"I was mad when I did it," he gasped; "drunken fool that I was. I only meant to prick myself to frighten her," and he pointed to his trembling wife.
The words were taken down, and the coroner's verdict of "Suicide when in a state of temporary insanity," was unanimous and unquestioned. Thus with his last words he had saved her, but the horrible part of the story had yet to come. Every year since his death, on that same date, the thirtieth of August, as if regretting the impulse which had prompted him to save her, he had come back and recalled to her all the hideous recollections of his death. The first time she had put it down to a morbid trick of her disordered imagination, and, not being superstitious, she had refused to lend credence even to her eyes. But the next year on the same date he had come again, and since then every year on the thirtieth of August he had appeared, remaining only a few minutes, and never speaking, but by his demoniacal visage keeping open the hated memory of the past. She had cut herself adrift from the world, and with an old housekeeper had buried herself in this lonely house; but life was a tedious task, and had she been able to summon the courage, she would have ended it by casting herself into the lake. Then I had strayed in upon her lonely existence, and for a short while she confessed that she had been able almost to forget the ban under which she lay, and had found life pleasant. But now it had all come back to her again. I knew her story, and I must go. Would I try to forget her?
When she had finished her story, horrible though it was, I laughed. My love was so vehement that I never dreamt of giving her up. She shrank from me in wonderment, but I caught her in my arms, and swore that never, even at her command, would I leave her. She implored me to remember that evil deed of hers. I shook my head. It was an accident, unpremeditated, unintended. I refused to think of it. She bade me remember that hideous apparition and its yearly visits. I laughed to scorn the idea of fearing or shrinking from these. I was adamant.
At last she yielded, and threw herself into my arms in a passionate fit of tears, but with joy and relief in her face. I felt at that moment I had never loved her before. She had seemed to me something almost unnatural; now by her tears she was a woman, and a woman after my own heart.
I had won her, and in a month we were married. Marguerite seemed a different creature, and I was the happiest man on earth; but when the summer came round again, she altered, and when the thirtieth of August arrived she was pale and trembling. He came, and hand and hand we passed through the terrible ordeal. Then on the morrow we rose with lightened hearts, and looked forward to another year of happiness.
Since then twelve summers have come and gone, and twelve times have we faced together that terrible apparition. I have fired pistol shots through it—in vain. I have spent the day on my knees at the altar (I am a Roman Catholic), but a sudden faintness has come over me. I have been carried outside, and when I have opened my eyes he has been there. I have spent the days in all manner of ways, surrounded by friends in the busiest haunts of London; but, though visible to us alone, he has come with a sneering smile on those death-white lips, as if mocking our efforts to escape. No art can evade him, no will elude him. While we live he will come to us, and now we are growing more resigned, and we meet him in solitude, encouraged, and consoled by one another's presence.
Two children have we had, and both have died on the thirtieth of August; yet are we happy in the great love we have for one another, and happy shall we be till the end. And when the day of my death or hers shall come (God grant we may die together!), something tells me that it will be on that same date, the thirtieth of August.
Mr. Matthew Ford was a solicitor of a type which seldom appear outside the pages of an old-fashioned novel, and which is generally supposed to be extinct. He was neither tall nor short, with grey whiskers and furrowed face. Summer and winter his attire was always of solemn black, and he wore the collars and had the manners of a past generation. Needless to say, he was a bachelor, and lived by rule. He was well off. His practice, though not large, was a very high-class one, and he had no anxiety to increase it. It had been his father's before him, and most of his clients had been clients, or were the sons of clients, of his late father. He was quite satisfied with his position; and certain it is that if any one ever lived a perfectly immaculate life, that person was Mr. Matthew Ford.
Punctually at ten o'clock on a dull morning towards the end of December he was in his private office opening his letters, and methodically sorting them into separate piles. It was an apartment bare and somewhat cold-looking, but scrupulously clean and neat. One end was lined with a book-case, the titles of the contents of which were quite enough to make any ordinary man shiver, and the other with a regular assortment of black tin boxes, on which in white letters appeared the names of Mr. Ford's chief clients—and very good names they were. It might be said that Mr. Ford looked perfectly in accord with the apartment, and the apartment perfectly in accord with Mr. Ford. Both gave you the impression of scrupulous neatness, punctilious exactitude, and unimpeachable respectability. Such were the characteristics both of the room and its occupant.
Just as Mr. Ford came to the end of his letters there was a tap at the door, and, in response to his "Come in," a grey-haired clerk entered and deferentially presented a card.
There were no gay young sprigs in this office serving their articles. All the clerks were staid, respectable men, who received high wages, and, knowing when they were well off, kept their places. The one who stood before his master now could boast of twenty-seven years' faithful service.
"Mr. Charles Cavenant, sir!"
"Very good; you can show him in," replied Mr. Ford.
The new arrival, when he had been somewhat ceremoniously ushered in, proved to be a very great contrast to the room and to its owner. Charlie Cavenant—a sub., twenty-two years old—was a tall, slender young man, with the fair face and laughing eyes of a boy. He was most correctly attired, and the smell of the gardenia in his coat was a strange one to permeate the musty room.
"Well, Mr. Ford!" he exclaimed in loud, hearty tones, as he drew off his sealskin glove and shook hands, a little patronizingly, with the lawyer. "You're pretty well?"
"Much the same as usual, thank you, Mr. Charles. And you?"
"Oh, I'm never anything else. Licks me how any one can keep well in this beastly hole, though!" he continued, glancing disparagingly around at the dingy walls and out into the narrow court. "Suppose it's use. Heard from the governor this morning?"
"I had just finished reading a letter from Sir Charles as you came in. He wants me to go down to the Abbey to-morrow, and stay over Christmas Day."
"He does I've heard from him myself this morning, and, according to instructions received—that's the legal way of putting it, isn't it?—I'm here to make sure of your going. He wants you to meet Okell, and have a chat about the lease and the Langdale property."
Mr. Ford considered for a minute or two.
"Very well, Mr. Charles," he said, after a pause and a glance through the diary; "as your father wants me professionally, I shall go. Christmas festivities are not much in my line, however, and I'm afraid that I shall be somewhat out of place. But that must pass."
"Oh, there's going to be lots of fun; certain to be something that'll amuse you. We've got up some theatricals for to-morrow night; that'll be worth seeing; and there'll be lots of pretty girls there. It'll be a nice little change for you, Mr. Ford. Whit train shall you come down by?"
"The five o'clock to-morrow afternoon. That is a fast train, I believe."
"Ah, that'll do," replied young Mr. Cavenant rising and extending his small, shapely hand across the table. "I mist be off now, Good-morning, Mr. Ford. I think I shall run down tonight to finish the arrangements for those theatricals. By-the-by, should you care about taking a part? Put you in with a nice-looking girl."
"By no means!" declared the lawyer, almost startled out of his composure at the bare idea. "Such a thing would be altogether out of my way. Certainly not."
"Oh, just as you like. Thought perhaps you'd enjoy it. Good-morning;" and the young man sauntered out.
"By Jove!" he muttered to himself, as he made his way into the street and turned westward. "I should like to jolly well stir that old buffer up; it'd do him no end of good. He always reminds me of something frozen."
He paused and drew out a little memorandum-book. Yes, all his commissions were executed except one—a last visit to the costumiers, to finally inspect the costumes for the theatricals at Rolleston Abbey. He called a hansom and drove to Bond Street.
Everything was most satisfactory. The costumes were ready to send, and the order had been carefully executed. He saw the labels written out, and then left the shop. He crossed the pavement, and was just stepping into the hansom, when a sudden idea struck him. He stopped short.
"By Jove!" he muttered. "I—I'm hanged if I don't do it!" and, with a hearty laugh, he turned and re-entered the shop.
Sir Charles Cavenant, of Rolleston Abbey, Leicestershire, was one of Mr. Ford's oldest and best clients, and a summons from him was not to be disregarded. Accordingly, at five minutes to five on the following afternoon, behold Mr. Ford comfortably ensconced in the corner seat of an empty first-class carriage, with a neat black portmanteau over his head, a rug round his knees, a pile of papers by his side, and a reading-lamp carefully adjusted in the window-ledge. The lawyer was old-fashioned in his ideas as regards railway travelling, and always greatly preferred a carriage to himself. The whistle sounded, and he was just congratulating himself upon having, by a judicious tip, secured the gratification of his whim, when the door was suddenly opened, the guard handed in a lady, and before Mr. Ford could open his mouth they were gliding out of St. Pancras station.
Mr. Ford was extremely annoyed. If there was one thing he feared and hated more than another it was travelling alone with a woman, and here he was locked up with one, at any rate, for an hour. He drew as far as possible back into his corner, pulled down his cap, and unfolded The Times. His reading did not progress, however for though he had never even glanced at his companion since her hurried entrance, he was somehow full of an uneasy consciousness that she was watching him. He frowned, tried to rid himself of the idea and devote his attention to the paper, but it was useless. He felt that he must raise his eyes, and at last he yielded and looked up. His suspicions were verified. His companion—quite a young lady she appeared, and most stylishly dressed—was not only watching him over the top of the Queen, but as she caught his glance, actually smiled.
He turned his head away immediately; and, cold though the carriage was, the sweat nearly came to his forehead, and his hands trembled as he gazed fixedly at the legal column of The Times, and saw nothing but an inviting smile from a fair, mischievous face. Suppose she should speak to him! And scarcely had the dreadful idea occurred to him when she did.
"Don't you think the ventilators must be open?" said a soft, silvery voice. "The carriage seems miserably cold."
The Times dropped from his trembling fingers, he rose without a word, and solemnly examined the panels over the windows. Then he resumed his seat and picked up The Times.
"They are both closed," he said shortly, affecting all of a sudden to have found something deeply interesting in the paper. There was a short silence, and he began to breathe more freely. It was a very brief respite, however.
"Is that paper very interesting, Mr. Ford?"
He looked over its top, startled, not to say alarmed. She was leaning over her muff towards him with a most enchanting smile.
"I was not aware that you knew me," he said, in his most legal tones. "I do not remember—"
"No! What a memory you must have, Mr. Ford!" she interrupted, "and a lawyer, too! Why, I thought they never forgot anything. I met you many years ago, I know, but I had hoped that you would not quite have forgotten me."
This was worse than ever. Oh, why had he not got into the Pullman and escaped this? What on earth did this young lady mean by the stress on the "quite," and the reproachful look in her eyes? Surely she could not be going to make love to him! Good God! the very idea made him shiver.
He picked up his paper again. "I think there must be some mistake," he said, as composedly as he could. "You appear to know my name, but I'm quite sure that I don't know yours. You must excuse me; talking in the train always makes my head ache, and my paper is, as you remarked, interesting;" and he plunged once more into it.
There was a long silence. The young lady did not speak again, and Mr. Ford went on with his reading; but he did not progress much. Again that uneasy feeling came to him that he was being watched, and that he must look up for a second.
At last he could bear it no longer, and he glanced over the top of his paper. The young lady was gazing out of the window into the chaos of blackness, and, to his horror, he saw there were tears in her eyes.
Despite his frosty coating, Mr. Ford was, after all, a man, and the sight of her tears changed his mood at once. Perhaps, after all, he should scarcely have been so brusque. He would make amends.
"Would you care to see the Graphic?" he said stiffly.
The young lady hurriedly wiped her eyes and turned round. There was a constrained look in her face, as if she had been struggling to restrain some emotion—evidently grief—and the lawyer felt quite compunctious.
"Thank you," she said gratefully, "but reading makes my eyes ache so. The light is bad, isn't it?"
"It is, very bad," he assented.
"Now, if talking didn't make your head ache so," she remarked archly, "I should very much prefer a chat. You actually don't remember me?"
The lawyer began to feel uneasy again.
"I really cannot for the moment," he began. "And you don't remember my name, then, I suppose—Miss Barton, Ella Barton?"
He shook his head, bewildered. "I'm quite convinced," he began, but she interrupted him.
"Well, I don't feel much flattered," she declared. "Fancy your forgetting! Men are all alike, I suppose. I wonder if you are married yet?"
"Certainly not," he said emphatically. "I shouldn't think of doing such a thing."
She threw herself back among the cushions and laughed merrily. Certainly she did look most bewitching, and the old lawyer felt very much like a thaw.
"And your sister Charlotte—does she still keep house for you?"
Really this young lady's knowledge of his affairs was most astounding!
"Yes," he assented. "May I ask, do you know her too?"
"Well, I've met her once or twice," acknowledged the young lady, with a saucy twinkle in her blue eyes; "but I didn't get on very well with her. I don't think she likes young ladies, does she?"
Mr. Ford actually smiled a grim smile.
"She does not; neither do I."
The young lady looked at him distressed. He hesitated, and was lost.
"As a rule," he added. She looked up radiant. They reached Bedford, but Mr. Ford had abandoned his idea of exchanging carriages. He even glared most ferociously at a young man who looked like entering and inquired of his companion whether he could get her a cup of tea—an offer which she refused.
When they had started again, she rose.
"I'm coming to sit opposite you," she said; "I feel miles away over here;" and, dragging her rug after her, she took the seat directly opposite him.
For the first time he had a good look at her, and she cast her eyes down modestly.
"Your face seems familiar to me, somehow," he said meditatively.
"Well, I must be thankful for small mercies from you, evidently. I'm glad you recollect me just a little. Perhaps next time we meet you won't be so forgetful, for I'm going to 'stop at Rolleston Abbey, and so, I suppose, are you. Jolly, isn't it?"
Mr. Ford made an indefinite reply. This young lady was too much for him, after all, and his nervousness suddenly returned in full force. He caught hold of his paper, and devoted a desperate amount of attention to the list of marriages and births. In less than a minute he felt an electric shock thrill through him. A tiny soft hand had caught hold of his, and the paper was gently taken away from him.
"You're not to read any more, please, Mr. Ford; you're to talk to me. It's so dull, and I can't read by this light."
The blue eyes looked at him pleadingly, and Mr. Ford began to feel a very pleasant sense of thawing as he suffered the paper to be taken from him.
"I'm afraid—" he began nervously. "You see, I'm not used to talking to young ladies, and I think I'd rather read," stretching his hand out for the paper.
"But I don't please;" and the paper was laughingly withheld from him. "Now tell me how long you're going to stop at Rolleston Abbey."
Mr. Ford heaved a deep sigh, and yielded. He made spasmodic efforts at conversation, but his companion was an adept, and was quite content to let him play the part of admiring listener, which he did to perfection. Not at all unpleasant did he find the latter part of that journey, and when they ran into Leicester station, he took out his watch with a start.
"Bless me! I'd no idea we were anywhere near yet," he exclaimed, springing up and collecting his things. "Can I look after your luggage, Miss Barton?"
A groom from the Abbey was on the platform, and hurried up to them. Miss Barton turned and asked him a question.
"I wish you would see after my luggage, Mr. Ford," she said gratefully. "Burditt says that the brougham and the dogcart are here. If I could leave you to find my luggage and bring it on the brougham, and take the dogcart myself, I should be so much obliged. I told you about those horrid theatricals to-night, didn't I? I'm so nervous about them, and it will take me hours and hours to get ready. Do you mind?"
Of course he did not; so Miss Barton hurried out into the yard and clambered up into the dogcart.
"Drive like blazes, Tom!" were her somewhat unladylike instructions to the man. He grinned and obeyed. In little over twenty minutes the five-mile drive was over.
Mr. Ford, in the brougham laden with luggage, was quite half an hour behind, but he was greeted warmly on his arrival by Sir Charles and his son.
It must be confessed that the lawyer dressed for dinner that night with just a little more care than usual, and was more than a little disappointed not to see his travelling companion either in the drawing-room or at dinner. His appetite was not so good as usual, and he was a little restless during the meal.
"Had a pleasant journey, Mr. Ford?" inquired Charles Cavenant from the other side of the tale.
"Yes, thanks. By-the-by," he added, with elaborate carelessness, "I had a companion, a young lady who was coming here too. Miss Barton, I think her name was. Who is Miss Barton?"
There was a dead silence. The lawyer looked round in surprise. Sir Charles was palpably smiling, and Lady Cavenant's face was buried in her handkerchief. Several of the men were examining their plates very closely, and among the younger portion of the guests there was a universal titter. What could there be in this bare mention of his most agreeable travelling companion to cause this sensation? The lawyer turned a dull brick red, and longed for some one to change the subject.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Ford," said Sir Charles at last. "You asked me who Miss Barton was? You will meet her at the theatricals after dinner."
Two or three people began talking all at once, and the lawyer remained puzzled.
Almost immediately after dinner, an adjournment was made to the picture gallery to witness the theatricals. Mr. Ford was given one of the foremost seats, but Miss Barton did not appear, and the performance seemed to him a trifle wearisome. He had even ventured upon a yawn, and was thinking regretfully of the cosy smoking-room, when, all of a sudden, he had a great surprise. There was a stage entrance. Miss Barton, dressed exactly as she had appeared during the journey, had swept upon the boards. The lawyer was mystified, and glanced at his programme. There was the explanation—
"Miss Barton—Mr. Charles Cavenant."
Mr. Ford turned furiously red. He knew that every one was looking at him, and glanced up Yes, he was the observed of ail; but there was a half-amused, half-anxious look upon their faces, as if they were somewhat fearful how he would take the joke. He hesitated, felt desperately angry, then desperately foolish, and finally relieved every one's apprehensions by leaning back in his chair and laughing heartily.
"He took it like a perfect old brick," declared Charlie afterwards in the smoke-room.
I have lately read in one of our popular magazine a story which, for certain reasons, has had a peculiar and fascinating interest for me. Its author (I know not who he may be) and I have some thing together in common. We have both been brought into immediate connection with phenomenal circumstances and powers which neither science, nor nature, nor philosophy can account for, and whose origin we shrink' from speculating upon. He has been bold, and has told his marvellous story reckless of disbelief or ridicule. Why should I not gain courage from his example and relieve myself from the secret which for thirty years has hovered over me like a hideous nightmare—often thrust aside, it is true, but ever and anon returning and forcing my unwilling remembrance back to the period of my brief contact with things which assuredly are not of this world? As I sit here writing these lines, prepared to draw aside the curtain from that hitherto jealously concealed chapter of my life, I could almost fancy that it were days instead of years which separate me from it. The shrinking dread which those feel who, like myself and the author of the story to which I have previously alluded, have been brought into undesired and undesirable communion with things supernatural, is a sensation which time can never lessen nor efface. I am fifty-eight years old, an honest God-fearing man, ashamed to look no man in the face, and conscious of no wrong doing; and yet there is a recollection of one night in my life which, when it chooses to come and haunt me, can bring the cold sweat to my forehead and shake with a nervous trembling my strong limbs. Save but for this one flaw, my life is a happy one, as well it may be. My wife is loving and devoted; my children are what I would have them be; I am rich; I have strong interests in life, and I am not without friends whose esteem and regard are precious to me. Could I but rid myself of this haunting shadow which at times darkens my life, I should style myself a happy man; and it is in the hope that, by sharing my secret with the world it will lose some of its terrors for me, that I am about to reveal an occurrence'. which I have kept jealously locked in my breast for well-nigh thirty years.
My name is John Tregarron, and at the time to which I am about to allude I was in my twenty-eighth year—a young man of sound constitution and moderate habits. I was an orphan, but a rich on and I had just been returned to Parliament as the representative of my native town. Modesty would forbid my entering into an exhaustive analysis of my character, even were it necessary, which it is not. I need only say that I was utterly devoid of imagination, and prided myself chiefly upon my stern common sense. If at any time any one had told me the story which I am about to relate, I should without doubt have considered him insane. Neither solemn affirmations or any amount of circumstantial evidence would have induced me to believe it. As a rigid materialist I should have scoffed at the idea of accepting as a fact that which was utterly irreconcilable with our present conditions of existence. Many will do this when they read my simple unvarnished narration of an event which befell me. I cannot help that. I am an inexperienced writer, and I cannot summon to my aid words of eloquence or use the other arts of practised writers who seek to win the credence of their readers. But I can set down simply and in as few words as possible what happened to me on the 13th of November, 1878, between the hours of half-past three and four o'clock in the morning. Those who scoff may scoff. I shall not hear them, and at any rate it will be some relief to feel that my secret has gone from me.
On the date which I have mentioned I left the House of Commons, after a long and dreary debate, at a few minutes past three o'clock. I had a cup of coffee, and then, feeling the want of a little exercise after the long confinement, I started to walk to my lodgings in Mayfair.
It must have been nearly ten minutes past three, when I left St. Stephen's, and it was barely four when I was carried into my rooms. During that time, by the means of powers the nature of which I shudder to reflect upon, I had performed a journey of something like fifteen hundred miles! Ah! I can well imagine the incredulous lifting of the eyebrows, and the "pshaw" of, I fear, the majority of my readers. And yet, while it is an indubitable fact, which my landlady and many others could prove, that I was in London during the small hours of that hateful morning, I could yet bring forward incontestable evidence that I was also in Italy.
I walked briskly along through the empty streets, smoking a cigar and enjoying the cool air. As I turned into Belton Street my stick caught in a grating and slipped from my fingers. I stopped to pick it up, and then straightened myself in order to proceed on my way. I had not taken a step forwards, however, when I perceived that a sudden strange metamorphosis had taken place in my surroundings. I staggered backwards dazed, bewildered, alarmed. Had I suddenly gone mad, or was I in the agonies of some torturing nightmare? Belton Street, with its rows of red brick houses, its broad pavements, and its dull gas-lamps, was gone. I stood in a narrow stone alley (it was not wide enough to be called a street), terminating in front of me with a high wall, on either side of which, however, were rows of grey stone crumbling steps, leading I could not see whither. There was a statue of some dull glittering metal at the foot of each flight, and the figures, which leaned crouching over towards me, with the Roman broadsword threateningly extended, seemed weirdly human in the uncertain moonlight. I myself was in the shadow of a vast grey stone building of architecture strange to me, and a clumsily-built balcony jutting out above my head threw a slanting shade upon the ground beneath, deepening the obscurity in which I stood. It seemed to me that the warm odorous air was richer and softer than any which I had breathed before, and the moon shone with a mellow golden light in a sky the like of which has assuredly never stretched its glittering arc over the smoky metropolis.
At first I thought that this must be some wonderful vision, which would fade away directly, and leave me free to pursue my way down Belton Street; so I held my breath and waited. Before long, however, I knew that it was no vision, but a drama in which I should be called upon to play a part; and while I hugged the shadows of that grim dark palace the personnel commenced to show themselves. A clumsily-built coach, drawn by a pair of horses, whose hoofs, shod with some soft material, gave no notice of their approach, drew up at the head of the little street, and two men descended. They stood full in the moonlight for a moment, and I saw them distinctly. They were dressed after the fashion of some southern nation, and were apparently master and servant. He who appeared to be the former was a tall dark man, of olive complexion, and with big dark eyes. A long cloak enveloped him from head to foot, and from underneath it peeped the scabbard of a sword. The other man was shorter and stouter, with curled black mustachios and jaunty air; his person, too, was disguised by a long cloak.
After a few words with the coachman, the two men turned away and plunged into the shadows of the street of which I was an unwilling occupant. Almost exactly opposite to me they halted, and although I have never considered myself a coward, I shrank back against the wall, trembling as though I had been seized with an ague. They talked for a moment or two in a low tone, and in a strange tongue. Then the shorter man began to hum an opera tune, for which his master sharply reproved him. After that there was a deep silence, we were all three apparently waiting for something. I shrank from hazarding the merest conjecture as to what that something might be; but I could tell from the attitude of my opposite neighbours that they were watching the steps. Unconsciously my gaze followed theirs. Intuitively I was assured that the actors in the next scene of the drama which was unfolding itself before me would make their entrance from that.
At last they came—an old man and a girl, followed by a manservant carrying a lantern, appeared on the top of the steps; and commenced the descent. As distinctly as if it had been the noonday sun, the brilliant moon showed me the gentle refined face of the old white-haired man, and disclosed to me the features of the most radiantly beautiful woman whom I have ever seen in real life or on canvas. I am not attempting to write a descriptive story, for which indeed I have neither the aptitude nor the ability, so I will say no more about her save that her face, as she slowly descended the crumbling steps, seemed to me as the face of an angel.
They approached the spot where the double ambush lay concealed, the old man talking concernedly in somewhat faulty English.
"It seems strange, Carissima, that so suddenly poor Pietro should find himself worse. I trust—"
The tragedy had begun. In less than a moment the man-servant was lying senseless, upon the ground, and the old man was struggling in the grasp of the stouter of the two men. His master had seized the girl round the waist, and, with one hand over her mouth, was striving to drag her towards the carriage.
Trembling and speechless, pale with a fear which was scarcely cowardice, I remained without moving, my fascinated eyes rivetted upon the little group. They were clear of the shadows, and the expression on the faces of each, photographed in my memory with a hideous accuracy, seemed ghost-like and unearthly in the pale moonlight. In the old man's face anger and indignation shone, but there was no fear, although his struggles to free himself were utterly impotent. Passion, wild, mad passion, was blazing in the dark eyes, and convulsing the pale face of the taller man, as he strove in rapid words of persuasion to induce his prisoner to accompany him to the carriage. In her face aversion and hatred were blended with fear, as she struggled to release herself, and as he scanned her face with a hungry longing glance his grew simply demoniacal. He cried out something to his companion, who nodded and drew his sword, as if about to run the old man through The girl saw the motion, and, with a wild horror-stricken look redoubled her frantic endeavours to break loose. The sword appeared about to be plunged into the old man's body, when suddenly my statue-like condition seemed to leave me, and the warmth of life returned as if by magic. With one stride I was in the middle of the little group, the stout ruffian's sword was whirling twenty feet high in the air, and he himself senseless on the ground, from a blow with my clenched fist.
Again I carry in my mind a vivid photograph of the tableau which for a second or two existed. Opposite to me stood the girl, released from the rough grasp of her captor, her full lips trembling with emotion, and her glorious eyes full of a sudden hope, and already telling me their tale of gratitude. Almost by her side was her father, gazing at me astonished and open-mouthed, and a little to the left was the taller man, his head, out of which his black eyes were leaping with wild demoniacal fury, thrust slightly forward towards me, and his hand slowly drawing his sword from the scabbard. A tigress who has seen her cubs slain before her eyes, and who has now the slayer within her reach, might have looked thus as she crouched for the spring.
I stooped and picked up the sword which had fallen at my feet. Still no one spoke or moved. The tableau was broken up at last by the sound of advancing footsteps, and I saw that the coachman had left his horses and was hurrying towards us.
"Take her away!" I cried to the old man. "Take her back at once," and I pointed to the steps.
"But you, sir, whom God—"
"Never mind me. You can bring help."
They moved a step away, and their late assailant literally sprang upon them. I stepped between, our swords dashed together, and his progress was arrested.
I had learnt fencing when a boy, and it had always been a favourite exercise with me, but my present adversary was far superior in skill to any with whom I had tried conclusions. Had he been cool, I should have been a dead man in less than a minute; but he was blind with rage and fury, and came at me wildly. At his third thrust I felt a sharp stinging pain in my left arm, and knew that his sword had entered it. There was a cry of agony from the steps.
"Father, I will go to him! Shall we leave him there to die, when he has saved our lives?"
What followed is the most miserable part of my story, but surely there are excuses for what I did. The instinct of fencing, self-defence, the only half-developed consciousness that I was playing a material part in a real tragedy—these all I can plead as my excuses. What happened was really this. My assailant in his eager thrust had left his own person undefended. I ran my sword through him to the hilt. There was another cry from the girl. I stood stupefied, watching the drops of blood fall from the end of my sword to the pavement, and the ghastly shade of death pass over the face of the man whom I had killed.
Then I heard rapid words in my ear, and, looking up, found the girl by my side.
"Oh, sir, you must fly at once!" She produced a lace handkerchief from her pocket, and commenced rapidly binding up my arm. "He deserved it," she said, glancing with a shudder to where the dead man lay; "but he is the nephew of the Cardinal, and you must fly. You have saved me from death, and my father too. Tell me your name?"
"Ah! and mine is—" she broke off, and listened. "The guards are coming!" she exclaimed. "That coachman must have fetched them. I must go; and you, too. Oh, hurry!"
"And your name is?" I asked eagerly.
A buzzing in my ears, blank darkness before my eyes! and an excruciating pain in my left arm.
"And your name is?" I repeated, feebly.
"Dr. Emerson said you must keep quiet and not disturb yourself."
I opened my eyes, I was in my own bedroom, with my landlady one side of the bed and the doctor the other.
"How long have I been here, and what is the time?" I inquired. Had it all been a dream after all?
The doctor looked at his watch.
"You were found lying in Belton Street, with a stab in the left arm, and quite unconscious, at half-past three. A cabman brought you here. It is now five o'clock."
"Was I alone? Was any one found with me?"
"You were quite alone; and, of course, as soon as you are in a fit state to give information, the police will endeavour to find the person who assaulted you. Here was a foreign-made sword by your side, and your hand was bound up in a lady's lace handkerchief."
"Where is the handkerchief?" I asked.
It was given me; a delicate little piece of cambric and lace, stained and clotted with blood. In one coiner were the initials.
"Mrs. Burditt, listen to me," I said, turning to my landlady. "If I'm going to be ill, I insist upon it that this handkerchief is kept exactly as it is. Put it in my drawer there, and don't touch it again. That's right. Now I'm going to sleep."
It was three months before I left my room, a broken-down wreck of a man. To the police I declared that the brain fever, which had laid such grim hold on me that I had nearly died, had driven from my mind all recollections of the events of that night. How false! The merest incident of it then, as now, was engraven deep upon my memory, and chief amongst those memories was the divine face of the girl whom I had befriended.
I accepted the Chiltern Hundreds, and renounced the career which a short while ago had absorbed my every interest; then I left for the Continent, for I decided that Italy should be the scene of my quest, heedless that I ran every risk, if my description was published, of being arrested as a murderer. Two months I spent in exploring the towns of northern Italy—in vain. At last I came to Florence, and beginning my search in the most out-of-the-way parts, as was my wont, on the evening of my second day's stay, there I stood again beneath that stone balcony, and the whole scene seemed to rise once more before me. I mounted the grey stone steps, and gazed at the brazen statues with a peculiar fascination. The whole scene was calm and peaceful now in the soft sunlight, and none would have thought that so lately it had witnessed a ghostly tragedy. At a particular spot I paused, and looked down on the stone flags. Yes, it was there—a great stain of blood only half effaced.
My guide, who had doubtless been wondering at the interest which the little Place possessed for me, now shrugged his shoulders and spoke.
"Ah, Monsieur is looking at those marks of blood. Doubtless he has heard of the romantic affair which took place here nearly six months ago?"
I shook my head, and he proceeded:
"There is one of our Florentine noblemen, the Count di Fiolessi, who has a palazzo not far from the top of those steps. He married an Englishwoman, and has a very beautiful daughter, with whom a young Florentine, Signor Mulazzi, fell desperately in love. He was a very strange young man; in fact, I have heard that he was downright mad. Anyhow, the young lady would have nothing to do with him. Well, he laid a very deep plot to carry her off one night. He sent a message to the Count di Fiolessi at three o'clock in the morning, purporting to come from the Count's brother, who lives but a little distance off, and who is an invalid. The message declared that he was dying, and summoned the Count and Signorina Adrienne to his bedside. They got up, and, attended by a single servant, started off. When they reached this little Place, Signor Mulazzi and a hired ruffian pounced upon them. The servant-man was thrown down and half-murdered, Signorina Adrienne was being dragged off, and her father would have been killed, when a most extraordinary thing happens. An Englishman of gigantic stature springs from the Lord knows where, knocks the ruffian down with a blow of his fist, which nearly kills him, takes his sword, and finally runs Signor Milani, who was one of the best swordsmen in Florence, through the body. When the guard came up, Mulazzi was dead, and the Englishman had gone, and has never been heard of from that day to this. A strange story, isn't it?"
"Very strange, and this Englishman—do they still look for him?"
The man shook his head.
"No; the affair was all hushed up. The outrage which he had attempted diverted all sympathy from Mulazzi, and no one but Count di Fiolessi has attempted to find the Englishman. On the first day there was a reward offered, but it was cancelled directly the Count had given his evidence."
"We will go back to the hotel," I said abruptly. "I have seen enough for to-day."
I hung about Florence for a week, restless and undecided. Then, as the sun was sinking behind the hills one evening, I mounted the steps, and presented myself at the Palazzo Fiolessi. A tall servant led me through many anterooms and long marble corridors, until we came to a small sitting-room, furnished almost in the English fashion. The occupants were on the balcony, and leaving me in the middle of the room, the servant advanced to the window and announced "Signor Tregarron."
I will pass over the greeting I received, and the months which I spent at the Palazzo Fiolessi, and at the Count's villa near Rome. I am making a confession—not writing a love story. It was agreed between us that the events which had brought us together should never be mentioned. They were full of painful memories to all of us—to me they were more than painful; but for a while, in the delirium of my love, I was able to escape from all thoughts save of Adrienne. Least of all had I thoughts of troubles on one soft balmy night, when, as we all three sat in the grounds of the Roman villa after a day of dreamy happiness, Adrienne whispered the one word which was needed to complete my felicity. Then I took her hand and led her to the Count, and he blessed us.
"My son," he cried. "This is what I have prayed for! Bless you both, my children!"
He went indoors, for he was overcome. But Adrienne and I wandered across the smooth lawn, and amongst the marble statuettes, and hand-in-hand we watched the golden light from the full southern moon reflected in the dark waters of the Tiber flowing below us, and shining upon the vineyards which covered the slopes on the other side. Ah, life was very beautiful then!
I have finished my story. I have given a plain unvarnished account of that night's adventure, during which powers unknown to us in this stage of our existence revealed themselves to me. I do not expect to gain universal credence. But I have won relief for myself. My heart is light again as I read these words through and know that soon my secret will be a secret no longer—and—Adrienne calls me. I must go.
Sileby Grange had received a guest, and old Joseph, the butler, heedless of his rheumatics and the cold east wind, hurried out on to the broad steps to receive him in person, for Gordon Crawford was a general favourite and a frequent visitor.
"How do you do, Joseph? Glad to see you!" exclaimed a tall young man, as he sprang down from the dog-cart and walked lightly up the steps. "All well, eh?"
"Yes thank you, sir," replied the old man respectfully. "I'm afraid there's no one in just now, though," he added apologetically. "They didn't expect you quite so soon, and Mr. Dudley he's gone over to Harborough, to see about getting the stage fixed for the theatricals."
"Mrs. Carr in?" inquired the young man, divesting himself of his ulster and leisurely drawing off his gloves.
"No, sir. She's gone out to pay some calls, and Mr. Willie and the other gentlemen are out after the hounds. Howsomever, they'll be home by the time you've changed your things, sir. Will you take anything, Mr. Crawford? A cup of tea, or a brandy and seltzer?"
He shook his head.
"No, thanks. By-the-by, Joseph, is Miss Allnut stopping here?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. There's several of them come on purpose for the theatricals. Miss Botsworth's here too, and Dr. Thomson and another young gentleman from Sorchester. Miss Allnut's in the study now, sir, if you'd like to see her; leastways, I mean the library."
The information seemed to please Mr. Gordon Crawford.
"I'll go in and see her," he exclaimed with alacrity. "No, you needn't trouble to announce me," he added hastily, as Joseph turned away with that intention. "I'm going round by the terrace. Have my traps sent up, there's a good fellow, and some hot water. I shan't be more than a minute or two."
Joseph turned away with a quiet chuckle. "I allus thought he was rare sweet on Miss Allnut," he ruminated. "That's what he's come back for, of course;" and he descended to the lower regions to impart this delightful gossip to his better half.
Gordon Crawford walked quietly down the wide hall, passed through a conservatory, and stepped out on to a terrace, which ran along the side of the house. Outside the high French windows of the library he paused and looked eagerly in. This is what he saw.
A girl stood on the hearthrug in the act of indulging in a merry laugh. Her small but well-poised head was thrown back and the merriment was shining out of her eyes as well as asserting itself from her lips. She was petite in stature, but her figure was lithe and exquisitely graceful. Her features, though not of classical regularity, were clearly cut and of good type, and the bright, piquant expression which animated her face and shone out of her blue eyes redeemed her face from the mediocrity of good looks, and made her appear irresistibly charming. He watched her for a moment with a pleased, happy smile of anticipation, and then raised his hand to knock at the window. A movement within the room, however, arrested him, and he remained watching. A tall, athletic-looking man in scarlet hunting-coat and tops, splashed from head to foot, and evidently just returned from the hunt, had moved to her side, and, leaning against the mantelpiece, begun talking earnestly. Her laugh died away, and she glanced downwards to where her tiny foot was tracing out the pattern of the hearthrug. He moved closer still, and continued talking more emphatically than ever, apparently gaining boldness from his companion's confusion. He took her hand unchidden, passed his arm round her waist, and her sudden joyful cry of "Lionel! dearest Lionel!" penetrated through the closed windows. With a barely repressed groan and a white, set face, the watcher on the terrace moved away.
Six months ago Gordon Crawford had met Edith Allnut at this same house. He was not a man who, as a rule, contracted sudden likes or dislikes, but in less than a week he was hopelessly in love. Her lively conversation and; bewitching manners had at first attracted, then completely enslaved him, and for a while he lived in a fool's paradise. Then his sense of honour brought him a rude awakening. A slight change in her manner, the frequent aversion of her blue eyes, which had formerly met him so frankly and fearlessly, warned him that unless he wished to behave like a brute he must be gone. Marriage was an impossibility for him. He was a well-nigh briefless barrister, without fortune, influence, or prospects, and life as it was somewhat of a struggle. Under such circumstances, even an engagement was out of the question.
He had met her in the garden on the morning of his departure, and had taken leave of her there.
"You are going away sooner than you intended, Mr. Crawford," she remarked, looking away from him.
He laughed a little bitterly.
"I fear that I have taken too long a holiday already," he replied. "I am a poor man, you know, Miss Allnut, and life is not tennis and shooting to me."
She looked at him curiously.
"Is it so hard a thing to be poor, then?" she asked.
"I begin to realize that it is," he said; and, fearful of saying too much, he said no more.
They turned towards the house, and the bright expression had vanished for a while from her face.
"Well, since you must go, Mr. Crawford, goodbye;" and she held out a little white hand. He took it, and gazed into her eyes. What he read there he never told any one, but he went back to his chambers and worked as he had never worked before.
Barely six months had passed, when an event happened which considerably changed the tenor of his life. His father had died some ten years back, a poor man, ruined through heavy investments in some silver mines, and his sole legacy to his son had been the worthless scrip. One evening, whilst Gordon sat alone in his chambers, idly glancing through the columns of the Globe, a startling announcement attracted his attention.
There had been a great find of silver in a Californian mine, the name of which seemed familiar to him. Half dazed, he caught up his hat and hurried out with the paper in his hand. All the way down the Strand the name rang in his ears, shouted out by eager newsboys, and stared him in the face from placards and posters. At Charing Cross he ran against his stockbroker, the mail whom he most desired to see. In a moment the glad tidings were confirmed. He was a rich man.
Almost the first to congratulate him was his old friend, Dudley Carr, whom he ran against coming out of a costumier's in Bond Street. The two men dined and spent the evening together.
"I wish you'd come down and spend a day or two with us, old man," Dudley had said, as they parted. "We're getting up some theatricals that'll be rather fun, and your old flame, Miss Allnut, is stopping with us. Come down to-morrow, do."
The invitation was exactly what Gordon Crawford desired, and accordingly on the very next day he had followed his friend down to Sileby Grange.
He was a man of strong nature, and his penchant for Edith Allnut had been no passing fancy. His first thought when he realized his wealth had been of her, and his first throb of joy had been caused by the reflection that he might now seek to win her. He had hurried down to Sileby Grange full of hope and delirious happiness, and he had arrived just in time to see her in another man's arms, and hear her lips utter caressingly another man's name. What a fool he had been, and what a flirt she was!
Soon Dudley, all over white and sawdust, came hurrying up from the scene of his labours, and welcomed his guest heartily. Then Mrs. Carr, his mother, returned, and presently Edith appeared. She welcomed him almost shyly, and there was a subdued, half-conscious light in her eyes, which puzzled him. He muttered a stereotyped answer to her little speech, cursing her the while under his breath for a flirt, and then turned coldly away to continue his conversation with Mrs. Carr.
During dinner he sat glum and silent, eating scarcely anything and drinking a great deal more than usual. Opposite him sat Miss Allnut, with an unusual colour in her cheeks and a brilliant sparkle in her eyes, talking with reckless gaiety to her right-hand neighbour, whom Crawford easily recognized as her red-coated cavalier. Afterwards, when Dudley rose and proposed joining the ladies, he flatly refused to enter the drawing-room, and persuaded good-natured old Colonel Josser to accompany him into the billiard-room. For a while they were alone, but suddenly, when they were in the midst of the third game, there was the sound of merry voices and footsteps outside, and the door was burst open.
"Sorry to disturb you fellows," Dudley cried out, "but we want to have a rehearsal here. No, don't go away, Gordon, there's a good fellow. We want you to play the part of criticizing audience. You're a dab hand at this sort of thing, you know;" and very unwillingly Gordon Crawford resumed his seat on a lounge, and took up a paper. He listened to Dudley's coaching, to the merry laughter and badinage, and he felt very sore. Despite his efforts, he could not keep his eyes from following Edith, as, clad in a demi-toilet of soft black lace, which hung gracefully around her supple figure, she moved brightly about, the centre of all the mirth. Bah! how happy they all were, and how miserable he was! Suddenly he started, and the paper fell from his hand. He leaned forward, with eyes riveted upon the little group.
Miss Allnut and Mr. Scott (the man whom he had seen with her in the library) were alone on the pretended stage. He advanced towards her, leaned over the back of the chair, and made an ardent speech; moved closer still, and finally, in conventional terms, made her a proposal of marriage. She blushed, looked down, and accepted him, whispering "Dearest Lionel!" He put his arm around her waist, and then, just as the infuriated guardian entered, Dudley stopped the scene.
"It won't do at all," he declared. "Scott, my dear fellow, you'll excuse me, but you must improve in this scene. You're fearfully stiff, and Harborough audiences are critical, I can tell you."
"I'm beastly sorry," declared Mr. Scott ruefully. "I'm an awful duffer at this sort of thing, I know. Miss Allnut was good enough to rehearse with me this afternoon in the library, but she couldn't help laughing at me. I can't seem to get into it, somehow."
"It must be improved upon," Dudley exclaimed decidedly, "or it will spoil the piece. Come, let's try again."
"I say, look here," said Scott, turning round eagerly. "There's your friend, Mr. Crawford; he's a dab at acting, you say. Perhaps he would take this part. Pitcher's quite as much as I can manage comfortably. Would you mind, Mr. Crawford?" he added. "I can assure you that I should take it as a special favour," he declared earnestly.
Miss Allnut drew herself up and frowned, but she caught a sudden appealing glance from Gordon Crawford and was silent.
"I shall be very happy indeed," he assented, "if Mr. Scott really wishes it."
"That's capital," pronounced Dudley, rubbing his hands with pleasure. "Here, Gordon, take my book and read your part over with Miss Allnut while we go through the other farce. Other end of the room, please, ladies and gentlemen, for the "Area Belle.'"
Miss Allnut looked almost inclined to follow them, but she thought better of it.
"Your part begins here, Mr. Crawford," she said coldly, showing him the book. "I think you had better learn it first, and we can rehearse to-morrow."
"I think we'll follow Dudley's suggestion, if you don't mind," he objected. "This is my first speech, is it? Thanks."
"'Maud, I have come to ask you to be my wife. I—' Oh, bother the book!" he exclaimed, softly throwing it down, and glancing across the room to where the others stood in a little knot, busy rehearsing their farce. "Edith, I came down here to tell you something that I dared not tell you in the summer. I was coming to you in the library this afternoon, and I saw you rehearsing with that fellow Scott. I didn't know anything about these theatricals, and—and—"
"And you thought he was making love to me," she said, with a quiet, happy smile parting her lips.
"And that's why you've been so horrid ever since you came," with a sigh of relief. "How ridiculous!"
"I say," cried Dudley, looking round, "I can't hear the words, but the attitude is capital. No one could tell that was acting, Scott, could they?" he continued innocently; and no one could imagine for the moment why it was that Miss Allnut looked so frightfully confused.
The theatricals took place in due course, and were an immense success. Every one knew his or her part, but the number of rehearsals which Gordon Crawford and Miss Allnut went in for astonished every one, until an interesting little item of news was confided to Mrs. Carr, and spread among the guests. Then every one understood it at once.
"Mark! Mark!" "Quick, sir! Ah!"
An exclamation of keen regret from the keeper behind me and another one of half-angry surprise from my host, who was shooting next in line to me. I raised my gun, and blazed away with both barrels at the covey of birds which had been put up almost at my feet, but I was too late—I missed.
"What, in the name of wonder, is the matter with you, Dick? Are you moonstruck, or have you been having a nap, or what?" demanded Cyril Vaux, my friend and host.
I pointed with my finger across the heather-covered common to the bare, rock-strewn hills beyond. High up amongst them was a plain grey-stone building, designed after the severest style of early English architecture, with straight pointed arches, irregular outline, and with one simple spire rising from the midst. Behind, high up on a cone-shaped hill, and forming a striking background for the austere-looking edifice, was a rudely carved crucifix, standing out with an almost startling vividness against the clear October sky.
"I was looking at that place," I answered; "what is it?"
Cyril Vaux followed my finger, and a momentary shade passed over his face.
"The monastery," he answered slowly. "Striking piece of architecture, isn't it?"
He had used the correct word. It was striking. We had walked for miles over a stretch of open country, which had gradually become more and more uncultivated and bleak, and we were now almost on the outside boundary of an ancient tract of forest land. The stern, iron-bound hills, the bare grey masses of rock piled about in gloomy, fantastic shapes upon the uncultivated common, the belts of black, close-growing pine-trees, which stretched frowning along the summit of the range of hills beyond—all these surroundings seemed to be in accord with the austere character of the place and the vowed lives of its inmates, and to form a grimly appropriate framework for it.
We looked at it for a moment or two in silence—I with a half-fascinated admiration which I took no pains to conceal, Cyril with a heavy frown on his darkened face. And while we stood there the chapel bell tolled solemnly out for vespers, and far away in the distance we could see the white-robed monks slowly wending their way homewards from the fields where they had been toiling since break of day.
"Do you ever go to the place?" I asked; for Cyril Vaux was a Roman Catholic, and the head of a great Romanist family.
"Never," he answered shortly.
He vouchsafed no further explanation at the moment, and, in the face of his clouded brow and abrupt reply, I scarcely liked to question him further. But by and bye, when we had turned our backs upon the monastery, and the sound of its bell came no longer to our ears, he called me to his side at the summit of a sharp eminence.
"Look down there," he said, pointing with his finger below. "A pretty view, isn't it?"
I agreed with him heartily. At the foot of the hill on which we stood was a secluded, thickly wooded valley, bordered by upland slopes of rich meadowland and dark plantations, and half hidden amongst the tall trees, which formed a scattered circle around it, rose the rugged grey towers of a majestic ruin. The remains of a moat, now dry and thickly covered with wild flowers, were still just distinguishable, and, from the shape and outline of the crumbling walls, I could see at once that this was an ecclesiastical ruin of some sort.
"All that is left of St. Clement's Abbey. A picturesque ruin, isn't it?" Cyril remarked, looking down on it with the frown still lingering on his ruddy, sunburnt face. "Those walls must be six hundred years old. A magnificent ruin!"
"A magnificent ruin, indeed," I answered enthusiastically. "But you don't seem to admire it much, Cyril," I remarked; for after one look downwards he had turned away with something very much like a shudder, and was petting his favourite dog.
"Am I likely to admire anything much which reminds me of those cursed monks?" he answered, half fiercely.
I looked at him in blank astonishment. The look seemed to remind him of something which he had doubtless forgotten.
"Ah, you don't know much of my family history, do you, Dick?" he remarked.
I shook my head. The last twenty years of my life I had spent in India, and since we were boys together at Harrow I had seen nothing of Cyril Vaux until a month ago, when we had come across one another in town, and he had brought me down to his place for a week's shooting.
"Well, I'll make you master of it in a very few sentences, and then you'll understand my words better. My great-uncle, whose death left me the head of the family, was the largest landowner and probably the richest man in the county. He was also a Roman Catholic, and spent a good deal of his time at the monastery. Most unfortunately it happened that soon after his accession to the estates a man named Ricaldo came to the monastery, and became secretary to the Abbot. He was a Jesuit of the worst type, scheming, cunning, ambitious; and he found in my great-uncle, Sir Philip Vaux, an easy tool. The large sums which he had always been in the habit of giving to the monastery, and which always found their way to Rome, were doubled and trebled. Not content with that, Ricaldo got Sir Philip to go to Italy with him, and while he was there he made bequests to the Church which necessitated his mortgaging every acre of which he was possessed, and also got him to sign a will leaving everything to them. Had my uncle died in Rome I should in all probability have been a beggar. However, he lived long enough to return to England and to quarrel desperately with Ricaldo. The cause of that quarrel has never been cleared up, and the rumours which were whispered about at the time, and which are still believed in by a good many of the country people, I would rather not tell you. At any rate, my uncle is known to have declared that he had changed his will and that, with the exception of some reasonable bequests, he had left everything to me. One night, about a week after he had executed this will, he left Vaux Court, with the vowed intention of walking across to the monastery to see the Abbot with reference to some grave charge which he was bringing against Ricaldo. From that night he has neither been seen nor heard of, and on that same night Ricaldo also disappeared, and has never reappeared."
"And the estates?" I asked.
"Nine-tenths of them went to the monastery," Cyril answered silently. "The later will was never found, and the monks claimed every acre which was not entailed. That is why I am such a poor man, and can't even live at my own house," he added bitterly.
"I suppose all the country round was searched?" I asked. "Did they leave no clue whatever?"
"None. Their fate is a profound mystery, and will remain so now for ever," Cyril said. "Living or dead, they have both vanished from the face of the earth, and the will has gone with them."
I was silent for a few minutes, and then I changed the subject.
"These ruins must look fine by moonlight," I remarked. "I should like to see them."
Cyril laughed shortly. "You would find no one in the country willing to be your guide after dark," he remarked. "To add to the attractions of the neighbourhood, the place is supposed to be haunted."
"Indeed!" I answered, with all the indulgent contempt of a profound materialist. I did not believe in ghosts.
"I see you are incredulous," Cyril said quietly; "you have no belief in such things."
"None," I answered firmly.
"Neither have I, and yet—yet—"
"Yet what?" I interrupted. "Have you seen a ghost there?" I added banteringly.
"I am not quite sure," he continued calmly. "Ah, you needn't look so contemptuous, Dick! I know very well that all men of a reasonable turn of mind would call it an optical delusion, and yet, standing where we are standing now, late at night—"
He hesitated, and suddenly changed his tone.
"Oh, never mind what I saw, or fancied that I saw; you'd only laugh at me if I told you. Hi! Carlo, Ponto, to heel, sir! Morton, we'll try Harrison's turnip fields, if there's light enough left. Come along, Dick."
The sun had set and the autumn twilight was fast descending on the hillside. Suddenly I saw a ghastly change come over Cyril's face, and he caught me by the coat-sleeve, pointing downwards with a shaking finger. I followed his gesture, and for a moment my blood ran cold within me. Down amongst the ruined cloisters stood, or seemed to stand, a tall, dark figure, with hands stretched up towards the sky, and through the still evening air there floated to our ears the awful sound of an agonized human voice slowly chanting the "Miserere me." I felt Cyril's great frame quivering in every limb as he leaned against me.
"Come away!" he cried, in a hoarse, choking whisper; "come away!"
I was rooted to the spot and I could not move. Suddenly Cyril raised his gun to his shoulder and, taking a hasty aim, fired. The black-robed figure never moved.
"Let us go down," I whispered.
"Are you mad?" Cyril answered. "Come!"
Suddenly the figure, on which my eyes were riveted, disappeared. It made no step either backward or forward, nor was there near any pillar behind which it could have moved. It seemed as though it had melted into air.
"You saw that," Cyril muttered hoarsely. "Come away;" and this time I yielded.
We walked homewards with scarcely a word. At dinner-time Cyril ate nothing, but drank a good deal, and almost immediately afterwards fell asleep in his armchair. I stole softly from the room and up into my own chamber.
Being by nature and education profoundly incredulous as regards matters supernatural, our evening's adventure had filled me with an overpowering curiosity—a curiosity which I made up my mind to satisfy. I looked at my watch—it was barely ten o'clock—and commenced my preparations. First, I carefully loaded my revolver, exchanged my thin shoes for stouter boots and wrapped a long inverness cloak around my evening clothes. Then I stole softly from the house and made my way across country towards the Abbey.
In about an hour's time I reached the hill from the summit of which Cyril had first pointed the Abbey out to me. There was a full moon, but it was partly hidden behind a dense bank of clouds, and I could only just discern the ruined walls below. Scarcely hesitating, I made my way down a narrow footpath into the meadow below, and, scrambling across the moat, stepped over some loose stones within the tottering walls of the ruined Abbey.
I stood still, listening intently. There was no sound save the pattering of the thickly growing ivy against the pillars and the hoarse "too-whit" of an owl at the further end of the place. I walked up and down over the soft turf and amongst the grotesque shadows until I grew somewhat accustomed to the strange scene. Then I sat down upon a smooth stone, and, tired out by a long day's partridge shooting. I dosed my eyes and fell into a doze.
I must have slept for more than an hour, for I had scarcely opened my eyes before I heard the sad-sounding bells from the monastery behind the hills tolling the hour of midnight. As the last of the twelve strokes sounded I turned my head slightly, and then started up with a cry of horror frozen upon my lips, and staggered backwards against the cold stone walls with numbed senses and wildly beating heart. Scarcely half a dozen yards away from me was a dark figure, whose fierce, burning eyes were fixed upon me and who stood leaning on a long, crimson-stained rapier.
I could not move or speak, I could only stare with fascinated eyes at the awful figure which had stolen silently upon me. From head to foot a monk's dark robe concealed his shape, and the cowl was only partially pushed back from his head. The face was the face of a living skeleton, wan and emaciated to a fearful pitch, and round it hung a mass of unkempt silvery white hair and a long matted beard. The fingers which grasped the sword were bones and bones only. It was a fearful figure to look upon, and the horror with which it filled me will never completely pass away.
With shaking fingers I drew out my revolver from my pocket and held it out until it nearly touched him. Three times I tried to speak, but my dry tongue refused its office. At last a few faltering words came.
"Who are you? Answer me, or I shall fire."
The figure took not the slightest notice of my words or of my pointed revolver, but slowly turning round, motioned me to follow. I obeyed, keeping close behind him.
Over the smooth turf, amongst the fragments of tumbled stone and ruined pillars, we picked our way until we reached the extreme corner of the ruin, where the remains of a tower was still standing. Stooping low, we passed through an arched doorway into an apartment now open to the starlit heavens, but which had once been a cell. By this time I was beginning to overcome my fear.
"Speak, Father! Monk! or whoever you are!" I demanded. "What do you want with me? What—"
I breathed more freely still. The sound of a human voice, hollow and weak though it was, still further reassured me. I stood in silence while he seemed to be considering.
"Stand back!" he said suddenly; and, wondering. I obeyed him.
He stooped to the ground and drew out from a niche in the wall a heavy pickaxe, and with it gave a few weak blows at a certain spot in the wall, breathing heavily and trembling at the slight exertion it entailed. A mass of stones yielded at last to his feeble blows, and an iron-studded door stood revealed. Motioning me to remain where I was, he passed through it and disappeared.
Soon I heard him descending stone steps, which seemed to lead him down into some sort of underground chamber. There was a brief silence, and then he commenced the ascent slowly and with many halts. At last he reappeared through the door, tottering and exhausted, with ghastly streaks of perspiration on his parchment skin, and shaking from head to foot, as though with the effect of some fierce excitement. Then I saw that he was dragging something after him, and suddenly, with a supreme effort, it was cast down at my feet. A deadly faintness stole over me, and I clutched at the damp, cold walls of the cell for support; for the moonlight flooded in through the gaping apertures showed me the partially dressed skeleton of a man, his arms crossed upon his breast, and the bones that had once been fingers wrapped round the hilt of a sword.
A mist swam before my eyes, and it seemed as though the horror of the thing would turn me sick, but the trembling voice of the figure opposite to me reached my ears, and with a great effort I retained my senses.
"Thirty years ago I slew him;" and the long bony fingers, quivering in every joint, were stretched out towards the skeleton which lay there white and gleaming. "Yet not as a murderer did I slay him, but, no less the blame to me, I, Francis Ricaldo, slew him in fair fight. I, once a humble monk, a vowed servant of God, imperilled for ever the salvation of my soul, and fought with him after the manner of fighting men, as I had learnt in the days of my youth. His sin was great, though mine was greater. He offended against the Holy Church, he would have robbed her of her rights, with a stroke of his pen he would have undone the work of many years. It seemed to me right then when I met him within these walls at dead of night, and he showed me that vile parchment, it seemed to me right then to prevent this thing, though at the risk of my immortal soul. Little did I dream that for so devoted but mistaken zeal the punishment would have been so heavy. My last hour and my bitterest has come. In the name of the Church I restore to the heir of Sir Philip Vaux the lands which this man desired should be his. I lay a charge upon you, sir—I know not who you are, but it is one which you dare not refuse. Seek out the head of the house of Vaux, show him this skeleton and give him these papers. You will do this?"
"I will," I answered firmly. "And you—you—"
"To the monastery, quick!" he gasped. "Fetch Father Bertrand—tell them all is over. Tell them—"
A ghastly change had stolen over his face, and he sank down upon the cold turf. With trembling fingers he held a small crucifix before his dimmed eyes, and his white lips moved in an inaudible prayer. When the moon emerged from a thick bank of clouds, its soft light shining upon his white rigid features showed me the face of the dead. I had arrived only just in time to ease the conscience of the Ghost of St. Clement's Abbey.
Cyril Vaux is a rich man again, and many are the invitations he sends me to visit him at Vaux Court—but I do not go. Never again shall I look upon those wild monastery hills or on the fair ruins of the old Abbey, for the horror of that night alone with the dying monk in his secret cell have wormed themselves into my very being and filled me with a rooted horror of the place. Others may tell the story of the sad-faced hermit dragging out his weary thirty years of penance; I cannot.
Certainly if there is one time more than another when a bachelor commences to doubt whether his state of single blessedness is the most desirable form of existence, it is at Christmas-time. The joys of the season are essentially domestic joys; and every one is either looking forward to convivial meetings with a circle of relations and friends, or a happy reunion within his own family. At such a time a middle-aged bachelor with no relations feels rather out of it.
Now, although I must plead guilty to ten years of bachelorhood, I never was one of the misanthropical type. I was single (observe the past tense) not from principle, but merely from force of circumstances; and I was never addicted to shutting myself up with my books and a cat and growling cynical remarks at the pleasure-seeking world. On the contrary, I am of a somewhat jovial disposition, and was always fond of society. Christmas-time I liked to spend at a jolly country house, and could turn my hand to charades, dancing, romping with the villagers or children, conjuring, and many other accomplishments. In fact I may say, with due modesty, that I once heard myself described by a country hostess as an "extremely useful sort of man."
The idea of spending Christmas in my solitary rooms, with only my landlady and her domestic to talk to, was a contingency which I had never contemplated for a moment; but last year I was very nearly brought face to face with it. I generally had two or three invitations, at least, to select from, and chose the one where I should be likely to meet the most interesting set of people; but on this occasion my usual invitations did not arrive. The Harwoods, with whom I had spent the Christmas before, had lost a child, and were in mourning; the Houldens were wintering at Nice (Mrs. Houlden was delicate), and at Houghton Grange both the girls were married, and the Christmas house parties were things of the past. These were my stock invitations; and as I recollected others amongst my circle of acquaintances to whom something or other had happened since last year, it slowly dawned upon me that if I desired to avoid a Christmas in London, I had better make arrangements to remove myself either to a northern hydropathic establishment which I had occasionally honoured by my presence, or to a Brighton hotel, where I was sure of falling in with some pleasant company. Just as I had arrived at this melancholy decision, however, a letter arrived which afforded me the greatest satisfaction. It was an invitation to spend a week or two with my old friend, Fred Hallaton, at his place in Leicestershire; and with the vivid recollection before me of a pleasant Christmas spent at Gaulby Hall some three years ago, I lost no time in penning a cordial assent to the welcome invitation. A few days later beheld me, followed by a porter carrying my various impediments, on the platform at St. Pancras, prepared to take my journey down to Leicester by the 3.30 Manchester and Liverpool express. The Pullman was crowded with a pack of noisy schoolboys, so I eschewed it and selected an empty first-class carriage. I took possession of my favourite corner seat, with my back to the engine, and wrapping my rug round my knees and unfolding the Times, glided away from the city of smoke in a remarkably good humour, partly inspired, no doubt, by a capital lunch, and partly by pleasurable anticipation of my forthcoming visit.
Fred met me at Leicester station, and I saw with regret that he was looking pale and ill, and much thinner than when I had seen him last. He seemed pleased to see me, however, and greeted me warmly.
During our drive to Gaulby, I hazarded a few remarks, with a view to ascertaining what sort of a party there was collected at the Hall, but I got nothing definite out of him. He was quite unlike his old self, and I came to the conclusion that he must be ill. As we drove up the avenue I leaned out of the window to gaze at the fine old mansion, and it struck me at once as looking cold and uninviting, while the grounds were certainly very much neglected. Something seemed wrong all round, and I began to feel almost sorry I had come. We overtook Mrs. Hallaton at the Hall door, just returned from a walk. She was as gracious and as pleasant as she had ever been to me; but I fancied that I could detect in her manner and appearance something of the ill-being which seemed to exist around her.
We all three entered together, and the moment we passed through the door I felt convinced that my expectations of a jolly Christmas party were doomed to disappointment. There were no decorations about, only one doleful-looking servant, and apparently nothing stirring. I felt sure something was wrong, but at any rate I consoled myself with the reflection that I had lost little by coming, as it had been a choice between this and an hotel. But, all the same, I did not feel particularly cheerful as I followed the doleful-looking servant upstairs, along wide corridors, across passages, upstairs again, and then down a long corridor, until at last I reached my room in the west wing.
My surmises were correct. When I descended, after a prolonged and careful toilette, my host was lounging about in a shooting jacket, and he and his wife were the only occupants of the room. I was the only guest.
"I've something very serious to say to you, Neillson," he said slowly (Neillson is my Caine). "I'm going to make a confidant of you, if I may, old man."
I bowed my head and listened.
"You haven't noticed anything particular about my wife I don't suppose, have you?" he asked, with a searching glance.
I admitted that I had thought her strangely silent, and apparently having some anxiety weighing on her mind.
He laughed, a short uncertain laugh, and leaned over to me confidentially.
"I rely upon your discretion, you know, Neillson. I wouldn't have it known for the world—but my wife is mad."
"Mad?" I put down the claret jug, and stared at him incredulously.
"Yes, mad!" he repeated impatiently. "It was the sun in India last year that did the mischief. She would expose herself to it. The doctor whom I have consulted advised me to send her to a private asylum, but I haven't the heart to do it. She's perfectly harmless, you know; but, of course, it's an awful trial to me."
I stammered out an expression of sympathy. To tell the truth, I scarcely knew what to say. I was bewildered at this painful explanation of the gloom which reigned over the house. Presently Fred closed his eyes, and left me to digest this strange and unwelcome piece of news. I am naturally somewhat selfish, and before very long my sympathy was diverted in some measure from my host to myself. It occurred to me that it was by no means a pleasant prospect to be a guest in a house, the mistress of which was mad. It was not altogether kind of Fred to invite me, I thought, under the circumstances, without some explanation of his wife's state. I began to feel quite an injured man. The only consolation was the claret, and there was no telling how long that would last out. It had struck me that Burditt had been a long time bringing up the last bottle. By-the-by, Burditt was an old friend of mine. Why shouldn't I look him up and have a chat? I was quite tired of my own company, and Fred was fast asleep. So I opened the door softly, and made my way down to the hall. As I passed an open door, Mrs. Hallaton appeared and beckoned me in. I had no alternative but to obey her invitation.
"Mr. Neillson," she said in an agitated tone, "as you are going to stop here for a day or two, there is something connected with this household which you ought to know. Has my husband told you anything?"
I bowed, and told her gravely that I knew all, and that she had my profoundest sympathy.
"Perhaps you are surprised that I should ask whether Fred has told you," she said, turning a little away from me. "It seems strange, doesn't it, that one should be mad and be conscious of it? It only comes on in fits, and they are terrible."
She shuddered; and so, to tell the truth, did I.
"Such a phase of madness is probably not incurable," I ventured to suggest timidly.
"Incurable! Of course it is not incurable," she answered vehemently.
I edged a little towards the door. I had had no experience with talking with lunatics, and felt anything but comfortable in my present position. Mrs. Hallaton was beginning to look very excited and dangerous.
"Of course, if you are frightened, Mr. Neillson," she said a little contemptuously, "you can leave us whenever you please. These fits do not come on often, but they are anything but pleasant things when they do come on."
"I should imagine so," I assented, devoutly hoping a fit was not then pending. Soon I managed to make my adieu, and with a sigh of relief found myself once more in the hall. I made my way to Burditt's room, but he had gone to bed; and seeing it was nearly eleven o'clock, I decided to follow his example, and, preceded by a servant (I could never have found the way myself), I mounted again the wide stairs, and threaded the numerous passages which led to my room. It was at the end of a wide corridor, on either side of which were six doors.
"Does any one sleep up here?" I asked the man as he bade me good-night.
He pointed to a door exactly opposite mine.
"That is the master's room, sir," he replied; "and the one at the bottom end is Mrs. Hallaton's. No one else sleeps in this part of the house. The servants' rooms are all in the north wing."
I was generally able to sleep at whatever hour I retired; but it was early, and the fire looked tempting, so instead of immediately undressing, I changed my coat for a smoking jacket, and lighting a pipe, made myself comfortable in an easy chair. Soon I heard Mrs. Hallaton's light footsteps ascend the stairs, and the door of her room open and dose; and a little while afterwards Fred halted outside my door to bid me a cheery good-night, and then entered the room opposite.
How long I sat there I cannot tell, but I fell into a heavy doze; and when I woke up with a sudden start, it was with the uneasy consciousness that something unusual had awakened me. I sprang to my feet and looked fearfully around. The flickering flame of my fire, almost burnt out, was still sufficient to show me that no one had entered the room; but while I stood there with strained senses, I heard a sound which made my blood run cold within me; and, although I am no coward, I shivered with fear. It was the half-muffled shriek of a woman in agony, and it came from Mrs. Halleton's room. For a moment I was powerless to move; then I hastily unlocked the door, and, hurrying down the corridor, knocked at hers. There was no answer. I tried the handle, it was locked; but, listening for a moment, I could hear the sound of a woman gasping for breath. I rushed back along the corridor to Fred's room. The door was dosed, but unlocked, and I threw it open.
"Fred!" I cried; but Fred was not there, nor had the bed been slept in. A candle was burning on the dressing table, and in the right-hand corner of the room was what appeared to be a hole in the wall; but when I stood before it I saw at once that it was a secret passage running parallel with the corridor. Looking down it, I could see a light at the other end, and knowing that it must lead into Mrs. Hallaton's room, I caught up the candle, and, bending almost double, half ran, half crept along it, until I reached the other extremity, and found myself in Mrs. Hallaton's room. I stood upright, and glanced half eagerly, half fearfully, around.
The room was empty, but the window directly opposite to me was open, and as my eyes fell upon it, I stood petrified with a dull, sickening horror, and the candle dropped with a crash from my nerveless fingers. There was a miniature balcony outside the window; and on this stood Fred Hallaton, holding in an embrace, which was certainly not of love, the fainting form of his wife. The moon was shining full on his face, ghostly and demoniacal, with the raging fire of the madman in his eyes, and the imbecile grin of the lunatic on his thin lips. In a moment the truth flashed upon me, and as I stood there gaping and horror-struck, he saw me, and burst into a fit of wild laughter.
"Ha, ha, ha! You, Neillson? What a joke! See what a glorious view of the grounds! Come and bend over, man; don't be afraid. Does the height make you dizzy? It's made her—;" and he motioned to the insensible figure of his wife, whom he still held clasped in his arms. "Do you know what I am going to do with her? I'm going to chuck her over down there;" and he pointed to the garden below. "A mad woman is no use to any one. Come and lend me a hand."
Mechanically I rushed to the balcony, and strove to wrench from his encircling grasp the fainting form of his wife. Like a flash his imbecile grin vanished, and his eyes filled with a malignant fury, as he let go his grasp of his wife and sprang at me like a tiger-cat. It was in vain that I wrestled with him. His long arms were around me, and held me as if I were in a vice. I tried to shout for help, but my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth, and a faint gurgling was all the sound I could command. Nearer and nearer we drew to the parapet's edge, until at last I could see the lawn below, studded with flower-beds like the pattern of some fancy work; for Gaulby Hall was built high, and we were on the third storey. I felt his hot breath in my face, and caught his diabolical look of triumph as he slowly forced me backwards against the outside rail, which creaked and swerved with my weight, and then my struggling feet seemed to part with the earth as with a wild yell of—
"Leicester! Leicester!" I opened my eyes and sat up with a start. The Times had slipped from my fingers, and the train was slowly steaming into Leicester station, and there, standing upon the platform, smiling and robust, looking the very picture of health, was Fred Hallaton.
The Christmas party at Gaulby Hall was the most enjoyable I was ever at, and the people (the house was crammed full of visitors) the most entertaining and agreeable I ever met. There was one young person especially—a Miss Alice Pratison she was then—with whom I got on remarkably well. I never enjoyed a visit so much in my life as I did that one, nor a ride so much as one afternoon when Miss Pratison and I, after a capital run, rode home together with her little hand in mine, and our horses very dose together. Next Christmas, if Alice doesn't object, I mean to have a jolly little house party of my own.
On a cold grey morning towards the end of November, Hugh Escott, barrister-at-law, sat before his untasted breakfast in his London chambers reading a letter which brought to him the bitterest disappointment his life had known. With trembling fingers he grasped the single sheet of notepaper and read it steadily through; then it fluttered down to the carpet, and, leaning forward in his chair, he buried his face in his hands.
It was a very harmless sort of epistle, too. Merely an invitation to spend Christmas with his old friend Tom Densleigh at his place in Leicestershire. To any one but Hugh Escott it would have seemed impossible that there could be anything in such a letter as this to strike him such a blow.
"MY DEAR ESCOTT—Only this morning my wife was reminding me that it is nearly six years since you paid us a visit. How the time has flown! They tell me that you are working yourself to death, and though, of course, we are all delighted to hear of your becoming so famous, I think it's a great pity you don't take more care of yourself. I saw Roberts yesterday, and he told me that you were looking like a ghost, though for that matter he doesn't look much better himself. These commissions must play the deuce with a man. Now I want you to come down here for Christmas, and spend a week or two with us quietly. The west covers have scarcely been touched yet, and I can find you a capital mount if you care to do any hunting. We shall be quite alone, and Liz joins with me in hoping that you will spare us at least a fortnight. We'll send you back to town a different man. I shall take no refusal this time. Wire or drop me a line on which day you will come, and by what train, and the dog-cart and your humble servant shall meet you at Harborough.
"Yours very sincerely,
"P.S.—When I said that we were quite alone I forget that my sister Marian, whom no doubt you will remember, is stopping with us, and Sir Harry Grover, her fiancé, whose place is only a few miles from here, is generally knocking about. We scarcely reckon them as visitors, though. You must be sure and come."
"My sister Marian, whom no doubt you will remember, and her fiancé." It was there that the sting lay. As he sat in his battered old armchair, leaning forwards, with his head clasped between his hands, his thoughts went back to a merry Christmas party at Turlangton nearly six years ago. He had gone there light-hearted and gay, caring little that he was an orphan and poor, and determined, with the abandon of youth, to thoroughly enjoy himself. There had been a shy, beautiful girl—Densleigh's sister, whom he had never met before, and had ridden, and danced, and walked with her, until her shyness had vanished, and they became close friends. Friends! he was twenty-four, and she seventeen, and they were together every day. What would you have? The time came when the merry conversation which had flowed unceasingly between them was exchanged for long interludes of silence, and presently, when they were together, all her former shyness returned in full force, and yet she thought not the less of him, nor he of her. So things went on until the morning of his departure; and then' when he sought to analyze his strange unwillingness to go, the truth flashed in upon him. He was in love with Marian Densleigh—he, Hugh Escott, a poor briefless barrister, with no prospects, no position, no money. What was he to do? How could he tell her of his love whilst he had nothing to offer? and yet how could he leave her?
There was some shooting on the last day of his visit, and Mrs. Densleigh and Marian had driven over to meet them with the luncheon-basket. Just before their departure Marian and he found themselves by chance a little separated from the others. He was sorely tempted to tell her everything; and with a great effort he restrained himself. He talked to her earnestly of himself and of his future. "He was going back to London," he said, "with the firm determination to fight his way forward to success. It might be many years first, but he would succeed, and then—and then—" He hesitated and said no more, but his eyes met hers, and he knew with a great joy that his love was returned, and that she understood him. Joyfully he bent over her and kissed her hand. "Some day, Marian," he said, whispering hurriedly, as the others came in sight; and she had smiled an answer back to him. Was not this a plighted troth?
That same evening he had gone back to London, and had thrown himself into his somewhat neglected work with an energy and zeal which surprised even himself. For two years he seemed to make but little headway, but he never relaxed his efforts, and his time came at last. He was junior counsel in a great civil action, and at the last moment his leader was taken ill. The case, which was full of intricate detail and technicalities, was looked upon as lost. The Attorney-General himself was on the other side, and was confident of success; but he soon found that he had an antagonist to do with very unlike an ordinary junior counsel. Towards the end of the case there arose a disputed point of law. The Attorney-General was positive, and scarcely condescended to argue the matter with the young counsel for the defence. The latter, however, to the surprise of every one in the court, quoted from memory a whole statute, and cited innumerable authorities in support of his argument, and finally handed to the judge books of reference which entirely upheld his view of the argument The judge, after a very brief consideration, pronounced his verdict. The junior counsel was right and the Attorney-General wrong.
When Hugh Escott left the court that afternoon he knew that he need no longer have any fears for the future. In one short hour he had won that for which he had been striving for years. He had made a name, and briefs came pouring in. Still he worked on with unslackened zeal until he had established a splendid practice, and his name began to be heard outside legal circles as one of the rising young men of the day. Then, only a few days ago, he had said to himself that his time was come. He had succeeded—succeeded beyond his most sanguine dreams. Surely the time had now come when he might seek out Marian Densleigh, and redeem that unspoken but sacred promise.
Such had been his thoughts during the last few days; and now there had come this letter: "My sister Marian and her fiancé." There was no escape from these words. They told their own tale. The period of probation had been too long, and slowly he realized that the object of his unflagging zeal and unremitting labours was gone, was unworthy. If only she could have trusted him and waited! But it was too late now, and with something which sounded very much like a groan, Hugh Escott rose from his chair and paced up and down the narrow room.
Until that moment he had scarcely realized what the memory of those few slight words and that single look had been to him. They had been the moving impulse of all his efforts, the secret spring of his whole energy, and yet he had thought of them but seldom. He had found no time for dreams and fancies, however sweet; simply he had always had a distinct consciousness that there was some sweet reward to be won by this unceasing toil. And so he had toiled, and this was the end of it ail!
He did not do what most men would have done under the circumstances—refuse his friend's invitation. On the contrary, he decided to accept it. He would meet her unflinchingly and with a semblance of forgetfulness. She would never guess that it was her memory which had spurred him on to so great success. He would make no reference to the past. Let her think that as he had been by her forgotten, so also was she forgotten by him; and in such frame of mind he travelled down to Turlangton on the very next day.
Tom Densleigh was delighted to see him, and so was his wife, with whom in those former days Hugh Escott had been a great favourite. And then, as they sat in a corner of the drawing-room drinking afternoon tea and exchanging various items of news, the door opened softly, and Marian entered. It was dusk, and Mrs. Densleigh had sent away the servant who would have lit the lamps (afternoon tea by gaslight was altogether incongruous, she declared), and in the gloom of the room his tall, stern form and cold bow seemed as severe as he could have wished. It puzzled Mrs. Densleigh a little that the young barrister should draw himself up to his full height and knit his brows as her sister-in-law advanced out of the shadows with outstretched hand, and that he should immediately turn away to continue his conversation with her husband. Had she seen Marian's face, too, she might have wondered the more; but the merciful twilight hid it.
Soon the dressing-bell rang, and as he held the door open for Mrs. Densleigh and her sister-in-law, Hugh Escott ventured for the first time to look steadily at her. He did not find the survey quite in accordance with his expectations. The shy girl who had won his heart had developed into a grave woman, beautiful, even more beautiful than she had promised to become, but with a serious, thoughtful expression, which made tier look older than her years. She did not look the sort of woman to forget or to lightly break her word; and why, he wondered as her glance rested upon him for a moment, was there just a shade of reproach in her clear blue eyes, dying away like a flash, and leaving them cold and indifferent? He could not tell.
He was a long time in his dressing-room, and when he descended he found them all assembled in the drawing-room. Marian was standing with her back to him, talking to a tall young man with broad shoulders, short thick neck, and of somewhat heavy appearance. He turned round as the door opened—a coarse, unintelligent, but good-natured face—and some one introduced Sir Harry Grover to Mr. Escott. This, then, was his successful rival! Almost unconsciously he glanced with curling lip at Marian, and caught her furtively watching him. She coloured slightly and turned away.
The dinner appeared to the host and hostess to be a complete success, for conversation never flagged for a moment. No one guessed that its principal contributor, Hugh Escott, sat there with a heart as heavy as lead, although his tongue was as light and brilliant as though talking was to him the keenest pleasure. With a malicious intent, of which afterwards he was heartily ashamed, he perpetually led the conversation to a higher level than is generally maintained at the dinner-table of a country house, and continually appealed to his opposite neighbour, Sir Harry Grover, for confirmation of, or information on, theories and subjects which it was evident were far beyond him. The young baronet, however, was not a whit annoyed or discomposed, but ate his dinner with unimpaired appetite, and on each occasion of appeal being made to him unblushingly affirmed his complete ignorance of the subject under discussion.
"Not in my line at all," he remarked, in answer to a studiously polite query from his vis-a-vis.
"Ask me to choose a horse or a dog for you, or examine me on the Racing Calendar if you like, and I'm your man; but as for literature, or any of those—what d'ye call 'em?—social questions, why, I'm not in it there."
Hugh Escott's thin lips parted in a slight supercilious smile, and Marian bent her head over her plate. So this was the manner of man, he thought, for whose sake he had been forgotten—bah! She was not worth a passing regret even. And he turned away towards his host, talking and expounding more brilliantly than before; but during the rest of the dinner-time never once addressed or even glanced towards Sir Harry Grover.
During the evening Mrs. Densleigh was in and out of the drawing-room a good deal, for one of her children was poorly, and she was a motherly little woman. And so it came to pass that Mr. Densleigh had his old friend quite to himself; whilst Marian, with Sir Harry lolling by her side, sat on a sofa a little apart. She was pretending to be absorbed in her fancy-work, but really she was striving to follow the conversation of her brother and his guest; for Hugh Escott was telling his friend much that she would like to have heard of his life during the last few years, and of the famous men he had met, both in his profession and out of it. But he never once turned towards her, or sought to embrace her in the conversation. On the contrary, his one object seemed to be to ignore her as much as possible.
By and bye Mr. Densleigh asked his guest a question which astonished him not a little:—
"You've told us nothing about your engagement yet, Escott. I was never more astonished in my life than when I heard that you were going to marry Fred Matheson's daughter."
"Marry!" Hugh Escott laughed—a short bitter laugh—and glanced, perhaps unconsciously, towards the sofa. Marian had not looked up, but her fingers had paused in the manipulation of her fancy work, and he could tell that she was listening.
"It's my cousin George Escott, in the Guards, who's going to marry Miss Matheson. I never saw the lady but once in my life, and I certainly wasn't struck with her. How came you to think that it was me?"
Tom Densleigh laughed.
"It was that confounded ass Harrison who told us so," he exclaimed. "Always gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, that fellow does! What! you off already, Marian?" he added, as his sister approached and held out her hand. "Well, you do look rather pale. Headache, I suppose? Good-night. And now suppose we adjourn to the smoking-room and have a weed—eh, Grover?"
They sat up late in Mr. Densleigh's comfortable little den, Sir Harry especially smoking many cigars and drinking many brandies and soda. At last, however, he rose to go.
"Mustn't keep that brute of mine waiting any longer," he declared, lighting a last cigar. "Good night, Densleigh; good-night, Mr. Escott;" and, gulping down the contents of his glass, he made his way to the hall door, in front of which his dog-cart had been waiting for more than an hour.
After his departure Mr. Densleigh and his guest settled down again to that most delightful of occupations, the exchanging of old reminiscences. Then, after a somewhat prolonged pause, Hugh Escott astonished his friend by asking him an abrupt question:—
"Densleigh, what's your sister going to marry that fellow for?"
Mr. Densleigh looked thoughtful, and he did not answer for a moment or two. The subject was evidently not altogether a pleasant one to him.
"To tell you the truth, Escott," he said confidentially, "I'm hanged if I quite know. I'm confident that she's refused him three or four times, and no one was more surprised than myself when she came to me about a month ago and said that she was going to marry him. He's not a bad sort of fellow, by any means," Mr. Densleigh continued thoughtfully, "and he's awfully fond of her; but, all the same, I shouldn't have put him down as Marian's style."
"Neither should I," he remarked sarcastically. "Well, good-night," he added, abruptly terminating the conversation. "About nine in the morning, I suppose?"
"Sharp, if you can manage it," Mr. Densleigh observed. "I've told Burditt to meet us with the dogs at ten. Good-night."
There was some shooting arranged for the next morning, and, curiously enough, the events of six years ago were repeated. Again they halted for lunch at Saddington hill, and again Mrs. Densleigh and Marian drove over to meet them in the pony-carriage. Afterwards, Hugh Escott, tired of the somewhat noisy conversation of the young baronet and one of his friends, lit a cigarette and strolled down the hill, sadly conscious that he was repeating the action of six years ago. And while he stood there struggling with sweet yet bitter recollections, a voice in his ear caused him to turn round, and she was by his side.
She coloured a little at his questioning glance, and hastened to explain her presence. Tom and the others had gone down to Burditt's cottage to look at some pups, and had left word that he was to go to them there. She would show him the way.
He detained her as she was moving through the gate.
"One moment, Miss Densleigh," he said, in a cold, hard tone; "I have not yet congratulated you upon your engagement. Let me do so now. Doesn't it strike you," he added bitterly, "that this spot is peculiarly appropriate for such a purpose?"
Her blue eyes filled with tears, but she brushed them hastily away.
"That is scarcely a kind remark, Mr. Escott," she said quietly, "and—and I have not deserved it."
"Not deserved it!" He turned upon her, his eyes ablaze with indignation and his voice trembling with anger. "Not deserved it, when here, upon this very spot, you—you—but you must remember it. Do you know that since that day I have worked and toiled unceasingly, with the one hope and reward before me of coming back and claiming you? And yet you say that you do not deserve it! Not deserve it," he went on bitterly, "when all that made success taste so sweetly and life worth living has been snatched away from me by you! Fool that I was to stake all my happiness on the constancy of—of a flirt!"
She stood before him silent, with downcast eyes and quivering eyelids, and at his last words she started and raised her swimming eyes to his, full of a half-pained, half-indignant light.
"I am not a flirt," she said, "and you do not know everything. Listen! I was true to you, although through all these years you never sent me one word of hope. The time has seemed short to you perhaps, wrapped up in your work; but to me, ah, it has seemed an eternity! I know that it was honourable of you not to come to me before, but oh, how I wished that you would come, or send me just one single word of encouragement! As year after year passed on I tortured myself with doubts. I began to fear that your success had made you forget me, or that you were growing ambitious and cared only for the honours that you were winning; and then—then Tom came home one day and declared that you were engaged. That same night Sir Harry Grover proposed to me for the third time, and his mother and every one wanted me to have him so much, and I thought it didn't matter much what became of me, so I said yes. It's all over now," she added, with a faint sob, "but don't think too hardly of me, Hugh."
The indignation had died out of his face, and though his voice still trembled, it was no longer with anger.
"Marian, I was a brute," he said humbly. "It's all a fearful mistake. Tell me you do not care for him, then."
She turned away, and with a dull, heavy look in her eyes gazed vacantly over the rippling waters of the reservoir.
"Don't ask me," she said, with a shudder; "Hugh, for God's sake don't ask me. You know. It's too late now. I must keep my word."
They stood together in silence until from the other side of the plantation they heard the sound of approaching voices. Then he turned suddenly to her.
"Marian, will you give me one kiss? and then I will go away."
She lifted her eyes, and with a pang at his heart he watched her sorrowful expression change into one of mute reproach.
"You ought not to ask me, Hugh."
He bent his head, and kissed instead her hand. For one moment he retained it in his, and then they passed through the gate and joined the others.
By that evening's post there came letters for Hugh Escott, and, holding one in his hand (it was a circular of a new club), he made his way into the gunroom, where his host was. He was very sorry, he declared, but a most important summons from town compelled his immediate return. He must go without fail on the morrow.
Mr. Densleigh was in despair, but his guest was obdurate. At last, very unwillingly, he was compelled to give way; but he made a stipulation.
"At any rate, you shall not go until after tomorrow," he said decidedly. "Why, I've had The Rattler trained specially for you, and he's in the very pink of condition. You positively must have one run with us."
So Hugh Escott, loth to disappoint his old friend, consented to put off his return to town for one day.
Every one hunted at Turlangton Grange, from the master down to the smallest stable-boy, and it was a very sportsmanlike party which issued from the lodge gates at half-past ten on the following morning. The Rattler turned out to be a dark bay, thoroughly trained, fast, and a capital fencer; and Hugh Escott, as he cantered along the smooth turf by the side of the road, felt that it would be his own fault if he failed to give a good account of himself with such a mount. Marian was riding a grey, almost thoroughbred, and very restless, but thoroughly under control, and by her side rode Sir Harry Grover, on a magnificent but evil-looking chestnut, the management of which absorbed his whole attention. Mr. Densleigh brought up the rear, keeping a respectful distance from the chestnut's heels, and mounted on a bay of somewhat lighter colour, and in other respects very similar to The Rattler.
It was a magnificent morning, but the air was a trifle too keen for scent, and a good deal of time was flittered away whilst Rolleston Spinneys and several adjacent covers were drawn blank. At last, however, a fox was started from "John Ball," and, getting clear away, headed for Billesdon. In a moment the welcome cry was given, cigars were pitched away, hats pressed down, and horses rapidly changed. All the Turlangton party got away in the first flight, but after a field or two Hugh Escott took a line slightly to the left, losing sight of the others, and, indeed, of most of the field. A very short time proved that his counsellor—an old farmer with whom he had been chatting at the cover side—knew what he was about; for as he paused on some rising ground to have a look round, he saw that the fox had doubled, and was coming straight towards him, evidently bound for Norton Gorse. Almost as the music of the dogs reached his ears, another and a different sound caused him to glance quickly over his left shoulder, and he gave a great start. In the very next field, with his head low down and the bit between his teeth, was Sir Harry Grover's chestnut, galloping with the mad pace and reckless abandon of a runaway, whilst Sir Harry had fallen forward in his saddle, and was reeling side to side like a drunken man. For a moment Hugh Escott watched without moving. His first thought was that the brute would gallop itself out in time, if Sir Harry could only keep his seat; then suddenly he noticed the rider's peculiar attitude, and it flashed upon him that he must be hurt in some way. Almost simultaneously there were faint cries of warning from far away behind, "The cutting! the cutting!" and, rising in his saddle, Hugh Escott saw for the first time that scarcely two hundred yards away there was a deep gully where it had been intended to construct a railway siding. Towards this the chestnut, unchecked and unguided, was galloping unswervingly.
For a second he hesitated—literally it was no longer—and then he dug spurs into The Rattler and lifted him into the next field. There was but one thing to be done, and he had determined to do it. Across the field he galloped in an oblique direction, only once pausing to rise in his stirrups and shout, "Throw yourself off, Sir Harry! Let loose!" But Sir Harry never looked up or took the least notice. The Rattler was going magnificently, but the chestnut was coming down the field like a fiend, and it seemed to the onlookers—the whole field were in sight now—that the two horses must cannon together on the very brink of the cutting. At the last moment, however, a sharp descent gave The Rattler an advantage, and he passed in front of the chestnut's panting head and foaming nostrils with a dozen yards to spare. One glance showed Escott that Sir Harry was unconscious; then, clenching his teeth, he pulled The Rattler on his haunches, and swinging him round, leaned over and caught at the baronet's reeling form as he was whirled past him. His grasp caught the fainting man around the middle, but the shock pulled him off his horse. Still he retained his hold, and locked in one another's arms the two men fell to the ground, whilst the chestnut, with a wild stagger and horrible snort, went head over heels into the cutting, and lay there a sickening mass.
It was all over. The centre of an anxious, eager group, Hugh Escott was on his feet, pale, but unhurt and Sir Harry in a moment staggered up too, almost blinded with the blood which flowed from a wound in his temple, but not much the worse for his fall. A bough from a tree had struck him whilst jumping a hedge, and his horse, a regular brute, feeling the reins slacken, had bolted. If it had not been for Mr. Escott, he acknowledged frankly, holding out his hand to him, he must have been killed.
There was a buzz, and more than a buzz, of congratulations. Every one was pressing forward to shake hands with Hugh Escott, who, with a faint, deprecating smile, was leaning breathless against The Rattler. Then every one's attention was suddenly diverted by a fresh sensation. Marian Densleigh, who had just ridden up with her brother, had fainted dead away.
It was nearly a quarter of an hour before she revived, by which time most of the strangers had departed, and there remained only the doctor, who had been applying the usual restoratives, and the party for Turlangton, all of whom had had quite enough hunting for that day. Directly she opened her eyes she murmured a question:—
"Is he safe?"
Sir Harry, with flushed cheeks, bent over her, and answered for himself; but she shook her head impatiently, and looked eagerly round amongst the little group.
"Is Hugh—Mr. Escott—safe?" she whispered.
He had been standing a little aside, patting The Rattler, but he heard her anxious inquiry, and moved to her side.
"Ah! Thank God!"
She caught his hand with a little cry of relief and a glad light in her eyes. Then she dropped it suddenly, and he coloured and drew back.
It was an awkward little scene, but Hugh Escott had no eyes for Sir Harry's start or Mr. Densleigh's perplexed look. He had remounted The Rattler, and with a muttered excuse about its being bad for Miss Densleigh to have too many people crowding round her, he rode slowly away without a single glance behind.
When, an hour later, the others reached home, the following note was put into Densleigh's hand:
"MY DEAR DENSLEIGH,-I have just received a telegram which
summons me at once to town on most important professional business. I have
taken the liberty of riding The Rattler over to Harborough, as he doesn't
seem a bit fagged, and I shall only just catch the London train. A thousand
excuses to Mrs. Densleigh.
"Yours in haste,
And so Hugh Escott went back to his own town chambers, and plunged once more into a labyrinth of work. His arguments and reasonings were as shrewd and logical as ever, and his language as forcible; but, for all that, people began to notice a change in him. There were deep lines on his forehead and under his eyes, and he began to walk with a stoop. He was breaking-up, they said. And a very great man indeed, who had listened to the young counsel's pleadings from the woolsack, sought an interview with him, and warned him against the overwork, which must eventually end in a collapse; and it did. There came a day when Mr. Escott's clerk returned all his briefs, with the remark that his master was too ill to attend to them, and, knowing no friends to whom to write, himself took the management of the sick-room. On the third day of his illness a visitor called, and, after a brief talk with the landlady, was shown upstairs. The patient was unconscious; but directly Sir Harry Grover entered the room he knew him, and started up in bed.
"What do you want here, Sir Harry Grover?" he called out, his thin form shivering and his preternaturally bright eyes seeming almost as if they would start out of his head. "What have you done with her—my Marian? Do you hear? Not yours—Ah! I forgot! I have lost her, lost, lost, lost!"—and suddenly overcome with exhaustion, he sank back in the bed, gasping.
Sir Harry walked to the window with an odd look on his homely features. He had been preparing himself for this; but it was a blow. Soon he turned round and beckoned the clerk to follow him out of the room. Their conference was brief, but satisfactory. In an hour's time a hospital nurse was in attendance, with carte blanche to purchase everything necessary for the invalid, and a very celebrated physician was put in charge of the case.
"We shall pull him round," was the doctor's verdict; "but I'm afraid he'll never have vitality enough to struggle into convalescence."
"Get him conscious, and I'll do the rest," was the reply.
In time he became conscious, and Sir Harry tried his prescription. It consisted only of a few words whispered in the patient's ear, but their effect was unmistakable. His recovery from that date was rapid, and by Christmas Day he could walk about the room leaning on Sir Harry's arm.
There had been a good deal of surprise at Turlangton Grange that Sir Harry Grover had chosen, with only the vaguest of explanations, to spend Christmas in London, and Mrs. Densleigh, ascribing to that cause Marian's pale cheeks, was not a little vexed. On New Year's Eve, however, there came a telegram from the truant. He was returning on that afternoon, he said, and shortly after four o'clock his brougham drove up the avenue and footsteps were heard in the hall.
Then there came what was, perhaps, the greatest surprise which easy-going Tom Densleigh and his wife had ever received in their lives. When the library door opened, who should be leaning on Sir Harry's arm but their old friend, Hugh Escott; and their surprise was not lessened when Marian, with a sudden cry of joy, sprang to her feet and accepted the embrace, not of Sir Harry, but of Hugh Escott.
It was the young baronet who explained matters.
"You see," he commenced awkwardly, "I've found out that Marian doesn't care for me; and it looks as if she cared for him, doesn't it? Well, of course you know he saved my life and all that, and besides, I shouldn't be such a brute as to expect her to marry me when she cared for some one else, and so I've brought him down for Marian's New Year's present. He don't look up to much now, does he?" he remarked critically; "but give him plenty to eat and all that, and the doctor says he'll be all right in no time. And I really don't care a bit," he wound up, casting an anxious glance round to see how his explanation was received.
There was a universal tendency to laugh.
"You hear, Hugh, he doesn't care a little bit," said Marian, biting her lip. "Flattering for me, isn't it?
"Well, you know what I mean," explained Sir Harry, a little discomposed, but, all the same, under the impression that, except but that little slip, he had managed everything very neatly.
Of course neither Mr. nor Mrs. Densleigh had any objection to make, and after the first little awkwardness had worn off they were quite a merry little party. Hugh Escott finished his convalescence at Turlangton, and before that was over his courtship commenced. Any one in those parts who know Mr. and Mrs. Escott—and there are few who do not—will tell how that ended.
With an open letter stretched out before him and a vexed look upon his face, Lawrence Feyne sat at breakfast in his town chambers.
"This decides it," he said softly to himself. "I shan't go to Evington Grange. That woman is the most indefatigable matchmaker in the world. What a pity she can't realize that I'm not a marrying man."
He finished his breakfast, and strolled aimlessly to the window. The prospect, consisting of chimney-pots in inexhaustible variety, was not enticing, and with an impatient exclamation he turned away, and, pausing before the miniature pier-glass, earnestly surveyed his own face. A handsome face it would have been but for its worn-out, weary expression, and the dark rings round his lustreless eyes, which told of nights as well as days spent in unceasing toil.
"Bretton is right," he mused, dropping into a chair. "I must have a change, or I shall knock up. I won't go to Evington Grange, though."
He rang the bell for the breakfast things to be removed, and then sent out for a Bradshaw. While he sat studying it, there was a knock at the door, and "Mr. Spencer" was announced. Lawrence Feyne threw away his Bradshaw, and welcomed his guest cordially.
"Delighted to see you back again, old man. Had a good time?"
Mr. Spencer took a chair and a cigarette.
"Well, I don't know exactly about having had a good time," he answered deliberately. "I've been very quiet, but I can tell you this, Feyne: I never came back to harness feeling more fit than I do now. Look better, don't I?"
Lawrence Feyne contemplated his visitor's robust appearance, and acknowledged that he looked a great deal better.
"I'm thinking of a short change myself," he observed. "I don't feel quite up to the mark."
"You don't look it, I can tell you," said Mr. Spencer gravely. "Been overworking, as usual, I suppose?"
The other shrugged his shoulders.
"I haven't been working particularly hard," he declared, "but I've made up my mind to have a week's holiday. Where should you go if you were me, Spencer?" he continued, stretching out his hand for his Bradshaw. "I want a quiet place, you know, where I can be quite alone, and, if necessary, do a little work. I did think of running down to Evington Grange for a day or two. Sir Francis has asked me lots of times, and I'd quite made up my mind to go; in fact, I should have been off this morning if I hadn't had this letter from his wife. You know what an inveterate old matchmaker she is. Well, here's a long epistle from her come by this post renewing her husband's invitation, and mentioning—quite casually, of course that they are expecting a young lady visitor, a very prodigy of learning and good looks. I know what all that means, and I shan't go to Evington Grange! I must go somewhere, though, hang it!" he concluded disconsolately.
"I tell you what, Feyne," exclaimed his friend: "it's an uncommonly lucky thing I looked in this morning! I can tell you the very place to go—where I've just come from, in fact!"
"And where's that?"
"A lonely farmhouse in the Charnwood Forest neighbourhood—Leicestershire, you know. Charming scenery, bracing air, comfortable quarters, and as quiet as you like. Just suit you."
"I think it will."
And that same afternoon Lawrence Feyne travelled down into Leicestershire, and took up his quarters—very comfortable quarters he found them—at Mr. Crooks' farm, near Ulverscroft.
He was only thirty years old, this Lawrence Feyne, but he looked very much nearer forty. And no wonder, for he had worked from the day of his entering college with the energy of purpose and unremitting zeal of a man who had staked every hope and ambition in life upon the success of his labours.
He had taken a high degree at Oxford, and had come up to London eight years back with the firm intention of fighting his way into the foremost ranks of the literary profession.
At thirty years he was London correspondent to half a dozen provincial papers of high repute, sub-editor of a well-known weekly review, and was, besides, contributing to one of the foremost magazines occasional essays on various Greek plays, which were the delight of the classical world. He had made a name for himself, and society had opened to him its doors; but such was not the reward he coveted.
Large cheques came to him from publishers and editors; but these he valued only as tokens of the success of his work, for he was a rich man without them, and could, had he chosen, have lived luxuriously without following any profession.
His sole pleasure in life, however, appeared to be bound up in his work, and he lived the idyllic but unhealthy life of a literary hermit.
He had taken this change just in time to avert an illness, and very soon began to feel its benefit.
He sent for his books, and made up his mind to prolong his stay.
One evening, about a fortnight after his arrival, just as he had returned from a long walk, the unusual sound of a vehicle stopping at the door drew him to the window.
A fly had just arrived, and a lady, evidently young, although he could only see her back, was superintending the unloading of her boxes.
Lawrence Feyne withdrew from the window somewhat annoyed, for only that morning Mrs. Crooks had assured him that she took in no other lodgers. When she came a short time later to lay the cloth for his evening meal, however, she explained the matter.
The young lady, who had arrived quite unexpectedly, was a guest whom it was impossible not to receive. She was a Miss Clare, in whose family she (Mrs. Crooks) had been cook for fifteen years; and when she had left, Mr. Clare, the young lady's father, had lent the man whom she married enough money to start farming with.
"We's both seen some trouble since them days," continued Mrs. Crooks, warming to her subject and suspending for a while her cloth-laying. "My 'usband, he's a-died, though not before he's paid back Mr. Clare every penny he had from him, I'm proud to say; and Miss Edith, she's a-lost both her father and mother, poor dear, this many a year back. She often comes down here unexpected like, and powerful glad we are to see her, too; but I'm sure I never thought she'd be coming yet awhile again. She's a very quiet young lady, though, and I'm sure she'll not disturb you," added Mrs. Crooks anxiously, for she had no wish to lose so excellent a lodger.
He hoped not; but, nevertheless, he was sorry to hear of this new arrival. He had felt so perfectly free and unrestrained, so completely out of the world in this quiet spot, and he feared that the contiguity and constant meeting with this young lady would, in a measure, destroy the charm of his seclusion. No doubt, too, she was a fashionable young lady, come down to recruit her health a little after a course of unusually late hours; for had not Mrs. Crooks said that she had come down for a rest?
The next morning there came a telegram for Lawrence Feyne.
The editor of the Monthly was particularly anxious to have the next of his series of articles for the forthcoming issue.
It was rather an untimely request, but it was one which could scarcely be refused; so, somewhat reluctantly, he unpacked his little case of books and glanced them through, at first carelessly, then searchingly, with a frown on his face. It was as he had feared. The very book he most wanted he had left behind.
He rang the bell.
Mrs. Crooks herself hurried in, wiping her hands on her apron.
"I want Tom to ride over to Leicester with a telegram," he said. "Can you spare him?"
"Of course I can, sir," was the prompt reply. "I do hope there ain't anything amiss, sir?" she added anxiously, for telegrams were associated in Mrs. Crooks' mind with the most dire calamities.
Her lodger explained the matter, and Mrs. Crooks looked much relieved, but still sympathetic.
"Dear me, what a pity!" she exclaimed. "I suppose it ain't a book that my Tom 'ud be likely to have—or the young lady, now? She be powerful clever and do always have a sight of books with her."
Lawrence Feyne laughed.
"I don't think Tom's quite got to Greek yet," he said. "And the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles don't often appear in a young lady's travelling library. No, I'll write the telegram out at once, if you'll be so good as to tell your son to get ready."
Mrs. Crooks withdrew, but reappeared almost immediately with a volume poised gingerly between her fingers.
"Might this be the book, sir?" she inquired.
He recognized it with a delighted exclamation. It was even a better edition than his own, and was full of valuable marginal notes, copied in a firm, decided handwriting.
"Where on earth did this drop from?" he said, eagerly turning over the pages.
"It's my young lady's, sir—Miss Clare's. I just told her that how you'd come without a Greekish book, which the end was something like 'supper please,' and she gave it me at once."
"It's the most fortunate thing," he declared, settling himself down to write. "Pray tell Miss Clare that I'm exceedingly obliged to her; and, Mrs. Crooks, don't be alarmed if you hear me about during the night. I have a lot of work to do."
All that day he worked without ceasing, and night came on and passed away, and daylight streamed in again at the window before he had finished. Then he folded up his work and went to his room.
His head was throbbing fiercely, but he knew from experience that it was useless to seek sleep; so he plunged into his cold bath, and, dressing again quickly, turned out for a walk.
He wandered through the park a little way, and then, turning back, climbed up the rocks at the back of the farm, and stood breathing in the pure, wholesome air.
"Down! down! Tory, Rover, to heel! Tory, how dare you, sir! You bad dog!"
Lawrence Feyne turned round abruptly, and found himself almost face to face with a girl who had come round the plantation, and thus suddenly upon him.
She half smiled at the suddenness of the rencontre, and he, knowing whom she must be, raised his hat. "Good-morning. You are Miss Clare, I think?"
She nodded assent.
"And you are Mr. Feyne, I suppose?"
"I have to thank you exceedingly for the loan of your book!" he said gratefully. "But for your happening to have it, I fear I should have got into a row with my publishers. It was a very fortunate chance for me."
"I am very glad," she remarked, stooping to pat Tory. "Besides, if I had not had it, I should probably have missed your essay in the Monthly. The good fortune was reciprocal, you see."
He arched his eyebrows and appeared surprised. "Do you read the Monthly, then?" he asked.
"Certainly. I was surprised to find you stopping with Hannah—I mean Mrs. Crooks. She told me directly I arrived that there was a great 'writer gentleman' from London here, and that I must be very quiet. I hope I have been," she asked, with an amused smile.
He laughed outright.
"I haven't even heard your voice," he answered her; "and if I had done, it would have been a—by no means an annoyance," he added a little awkwardly. "You see, I did not come here to work, and I don't mean to. I want a rest."
"A rest! And yet I believe that you have been up all night writing."
"I had to write that article, you know," he explained apologetically. "I have put away all my books now, though."
"Ah, you are very wise!" she declared. "Charming place this, isn't it?"
He agreed with her, and after that there was a moment's silence. Then she summoned her dogs.
"I must be going," she said. "We've been up to the top of Old John, and I must plead guilty to a ravenous appetite. Come, Tory; come, Rover; breakfast! Good-morning, Mr. Feyne!"
He watched her admiringly as she ran gracefully down the steep path and vanished inside the farmhouse. "Who was she, this Miss Clare," he wondered, "who read Greek plays and walked with the grace of a Helen?" He felt just a little curious as he followed her indoors a few minutes later; and during breakfast he caught himself wondering more than once whether he should see her again during the day.
He did. After breakfast he strolled round the back of the farm to the lake. She was there sketching, and welcomed him with a smile.
"Going for a long walk this morning, Mr. Feyne?" she inquired.
"I don't know yet," he replied rather vaguely. "I dare say I shall. Don't you find it rather cold sitting still?"
She confessed that she did.
"I've only the barn to shade in, though," she added, "and then I shall have finished."
He surveyed the drawing critically, approved of it, and smoked on in silence, apparently with the full intention of remaining there.
"Don't let me keep you, Mr. Feyne, if you are thinking of starting," she said, after a long pause. "I shall be half an hour yet."
"I'm in no hurry, thanks. But perhaps I'm hindering you?" he added.
"On the contrary, I'm glad to have some one to talk to. Do you know, I thought it would be so delightful to come down here quite by myself for a week or two. I am a student, too, in a small way, you know," she added. "I came from Girton here."
He stared at her, not a little surprised. This tall, graceful girl, with her clear grey eyes and winning smile, a Girton girl. Was it possible?
"Do you know, those reference notes in that text-book you lent me were of immense service?"
"I thought they would be," she answered modestly. "And now I have finished my drawing," she added, rising.
"And I must go, I suppose?"—regretfully. "Don't you want to?" she said, gathering up her things.
"Well, no," he acknowledged. "You see, I want to have a rest even from my thoughts for a day or two, and if I go off for a long walk I shan't—that is, if I go alone."
"Then would you like to take Tory and me with you?" she said carelessly.
"You are very kind," he replied gratefully. "That is exactly what I should like."
It was a pleasant walk for both of them, and when they returned Lawrence Feyne acknowledged to himself that he had never enjoyed a walk more.
A week passed away, and the two young visitors at Crooks' Farm became quite intimate. Only three weeks ago she had taken a degree, she told him one day, and had thereupon determined to spend a well-earned holiday with her old servant.
"Although I ought to have gone to see an old friend of my mother's, Lady Keck, at Evington Grange. But I don't like her; she is such a meddlesome old creature."
"How strange!" he exclaimed. "I, too, had an invitation there, and, as a special inducement, Lady Keck wrote and told me of the probable presence of a young lady of stupendous intellectual attainments—obviously you, Miss Clare."
"And I," she said, laughing, "was invited specially to meet a pedantic hermit, who was one of the cleverest men in London—obviously you."
"Strange that we should meet, after all!" he remarked, with a certain gravity.
They wandered on in silence until they stood on Old John Hill. She leaned against the ruined tower, gazing over the panorama below. And as he stood by her side in silence, the truth slowly dawned upon him with an overwhelming, bewildering force—to-morrow was their last day, and he could not let her go.
"Isn't the view lovely, Mr. Feyne?"
"I wasn't thinking of the view, Miss Clare," he said quietly. "I was thinking of you."
"Of me?" And the soft grey eyes were turned upon him full of a mild, questioning surprise.
Then they met his and faltered. With a sudden deep blush she looked away.
"Edith," he said, "you know what I would ask you—to be my wife. Do you think you could care for me a little? Tell me!" he pleaded.
Frankly, she raised her eyes, full of a new-born, tender light, and looked him in the face with quivering lips and a happy smile.
"I think so," she said gently.
There were four of us when we first came to Stile's Row—Darton, Fred, Dick, and myself. Fred and I were old chums. We had been at college together, and, in palmier days, had shared a studio in St. John's Wood. Dick Maynard was a very prince of good fellows, but his career as an artist and a Bohemian was, unfortunately, nipped in the bud by an inconsiderate great-aunt, who died and left him a fortune. The old life had still some fascination for him, however, and when we moved to Stile's Row, he took the fourth studio there, and occasionally came and lectured about art. Darton, too, had been with us from the first; and, when he left, and his rooms stood empty, it was astonishing how little we missed him.
Our tiny circle seemed only drawn the closer for his defection. Probably, as Fred remarked, it was only propinquity which had made him one of us at all. He had always had a hankering for the brazen pots of Philistinism. Penury had been a source of constant irritation to him. The small privations, which we had learnt to look upon as a sort of philosophic tolerance, galled him. The jest of empty pockets appealed in no way to his sense of humour. His Bohemianism had been only skin-deep. With us it seemed to have passed into our blood, and into the very sinews of our daily life. But that we were still human, however, we had soon to learn.
Fred had brought his work into my room, one afternoon, and was standing before his easel gazing at an unfinished picture, with a frown upon his handsome face. There was a knock at the door. Fred looked at me and scowled.
"It's that grocer Johnny," he remarked savagely. "He said he should come this afternoon. Who told him I was up here, I wonder? Meddlesome idiot! Hold on a minute!"
He passed behind the high screen which partitioned off my room, and threw himself upon the bed. "Come in!" I called out.
The door was opened, and a girl crossed the threshold. We did not want to see any woman about the place. In this respect we were peculiar, but sincere. I went on painting, without a second glance at her.
"We neither of us want a model," I volunteered; "can't afford to pay them. Shut the door, please."
She closed the door, but remained inside.
"Can't you?" she said. "I am sorry. But, you see, I'm not a model."
I turned round, and looked at her. She was tall, and she wore an artist's smock over a plain dark dress. As to her appearance, I have never attempted to describe her, and I never shall. Dick could do it by the hour. I never could. I only know that she was beautiful, and she stood there laughing at me.
"I am your new neighbour," she explained, the corners of her mouth still twitching. "I have taken the rooms below, which a Mr. Darton used to have. Do you understand stoves? I have been trying to make some tea for half an hour, but, voilà! that is all I have succeeded in doing."
She held up a pair of small, black hands, and laughed. I laughed too. It was irresistible.
"Stoves?" I repeated. "I don't know; I'll come and see, if you like."
"If you really wouldn't mind! Good gracious! What is that?"
I followed her startled eyes. In his eagerness to see the new-comer, Fred had mounted on to my bed, and was looking over the screen. I frowned at him severely.
"It's my friend," I explained. "He has the room above here, and he was working with me when you knocked. And the fact is, we thought you were a dun, so he was in retirement. Come out, Fred!"
Fred appeared with a very red face, and bowed with such dignity as a man may who is wearing a dirty smock in lieu of a coat, and carpet slippers. But our visitor was very gracious.
"My name is D'Auxelles," she said. "Come, both of you, and see if you can put my stove right, and I will give you some tea. That is, if you are not too busy, of course."
Busy! We scouted the idea, and followed her down to the next floor. Darton's room was witnessing a metamorphosis indeed. We found the floor strewn with a motley collection of feminine belongings, including an easel, and all the paraphernalia of an artist. In the centre was a black iron tubular concern, emitting puffs of smoke from the top.
"It is a patent arrangement," she remarked, looking at it thoughtfully. "The man from whom I bought it declared that it would cook anything, from an egg to a haunch of mutton. It only wants managing. Here is a book of instructions. I have tried to understand them, but I am so stupid!"
She handed us a little pamphlet. It was all very simple. We went for it boldly.
"I will cut some bread-and-butter and open the jam, while you boil the kettle," she proposed. "Perhaps you will be able to make some toast when you have found out how the thing works."
"We will try," I answered dubiously. "The first thing to do is to thoroughly master the principle of the thing. Read those instructions again, Fred."
We approached our task with a certain amount of cheerfulness. As time went on our faces fell, our complacency deserted us. Fred, with a great smut on his left cheek, had commenced to swear to himself softly, but with terrible earnestness. I was struggling with an insane desire to seek out the maker of the thing and kick him. She came over and stood by our side.
"I am afraid that you are not getting on very well," she remarked. She seemed disappointed.
I rose to my feet. "The fact is, we are not getting on at all," I confessed. "There is a big fire in my room. Let us take the things in there and boil the kettle."
"Delightful!" she exclaimed. "Here, hold out your hands."
She loaded us with plates of bread-and-butter, and scones, and jam. Fred loitered behind to help her with the kettle. He muttered something about the handle being hot. At the door our eyes met, and he positively blushed. They were both carrying the kettle.
Such an afternoon-tea my studio had never witnessed before. Certainly it will never witness anything of the sort again. She sat in my easy-chair, and we both waited upon her—with more than average clumsiness. But she enjoyed it. She told us a little about herself—not much. She was an orphan, and she had been living with some relatives in London who bored her. They were apparently addicted to the vice of fashionable life. Helen—she told us that we were to call her Helen—had only one desire: it was to become an artist. She did not tell us so point-blank, but we gathered that she had run away. That there was anything unusual in her having rooms in Stile's Row, Chelsea, she did not seem to appreciate in the least. She was sublimely unconscious—sublimely ignorant. She looked out upon life with a naive and eager curiosity. Bohemia was her Promised Land. To be a denizen in it seemed to be the limit of her desires. Her sex did not seem in the least to embarrass her. She talked to us as an equal and a comrade. We were artists. In less than half an hour we had forgotten our shabbiness and the poverty of our surroundings. We were all the best of friends. It was very surprising.
After tea, she took out a dainty little cigarette-case, and smoked, while we showed her our work, or such part of it as we thought worthy of her inspection. Fred accepted a cigarette, and smoked it in lieu of his pipe. He told me afterwards that it was the best Egyptian cigarette he had ever tasted.
When she left us, she held out her hand with a little impulsive gesture.
"Good-bye." she said, looking straight into my eyes. "I am so glad to have you two for neighbours, and I am sure that we shall be good friends. It is so good of you not to mind having a girl as a fellow-worker!"
In turn we bowed over her hand. Fred mumbled a little speech, but I said nothing. Then we went back to my fire, and smoked, and looked at one another stealthily through the twilight. Perhaps the same thought was there with both of us. Through the curling smoke from my pipe, as it spread around in faint, dim wreaths, I seemed to see something in the future which might come between us two—a little crack in the wall of our treasured friendship—just a scratch, but a scratch which might easily become a chasm. And then Fred—a fellow of great heart was Fred—laid his hand upon that crack, and sealed it up for ever. Through the shadows, I could see his soft eyes—he had woman's eyes—turned full upon me, and his hand thrust forward.
I leaned forward, and clasped his hand.
A woman brings change as the spring brings flowers, but with us the change was not what we had dreaded. These were the halcyon days of our Bohemianism. We had a new comrade—gay, fascinating, sympathetic. Dick, too, came under the charm, Dick, the hardened young misogynist, who railed at women as at the plagues of Egypt. But Dick had mixed with women freely, and her society was never to him what it was to Fred and myself. Our evenings no longer hung fire. We had little dinners at Mariette's—more than we could afford—and we generally wound up the evening at a music-hall, or one of the exhibitions. Fred, somewhat shyly, had brought out a dress coat and unearthed a tall hat. I, with a sigh, furbished up my old clothes, for I was very poor in those days. Not that Helen ever cost us a penny; she paid her share of everything from the start, and she would have been grievously offended if we had treated her in any way otherwise than as one of ourselves. We even told her of our custom—the sale of a picture meant a dinner at Mariette's, if the price allowed it—and she clapped her hands with delight. But from that time she always seemed to be selling a picture; dainty little things they were, too! We seldom saw a purchaser, but her gay little summons became a familiar thing. And we went without hesitation. Helen had a way of making us do what she wanted. Our constant study was to keep her amused and interested, for there was just one disturbing element in the happiness of our days. Helen would get tired of her life in a shabby suburban street, with only us three men for her companions. She would get tired of it, and go away. So we humoured her like a child, watching her face to see if she were amused when we took her out, drinking sweet Moselle for dinner without a single wry face, holding frequent consultations, and studying her in every way that occurred to us. And, on the whole, we succeeded. As to her painting, we had no difficulty in keeping her interested in it. We taught her a little, and she was always eager to learn. She had talent, and her work, if it was not of a very high order, had a charm and originality of her own, She was a flower-painter. Often Fred and I found our way to Covent Garden, in the fresh spring twilight before the dawn, in search of roses for her, and saw the sun rise as we strode homewards together through the dim, silent streets. And on those occasions we said very little. But we each knew the other's mind.
There came a morning when Helen waltzed into my room, waving her hands above her head, and, with a fine flourish, came to a standstill before me. "Who will come with me into the Land of Goshen?" she cried breathlessly. "I want to go to my dressmaker, and to see the rhododendrons in the Park. Who will come?"
She looked at me, but I kept my eyes upon my work. Alas! I had no garments for the West.
"We have only one tall hat between us," I said sorrowfully, "and it will not fit me. Fred must be your escort."
Fred was already tearing off his smock, and handling the clothes-brush. She turned away slowly.
"I shall be ready in ten minutes," she said, without looking at me any more. "Don't dare to keep me waiting!"
I laid down my brush and watched them cross the street. Fred, tall and aristocratic, wearing his shabby clothes with an air of a prince, and Helen—what a metamorphosis! she had become a woman of fashion. She was wearing the garments of a world which had no kin with ours, wearing them gracefully and naturally. I watched them until they were out of sight, and an odd thing happened to me. I, a hardened outcast from the world, a wanderer in its by-ways, a would-be cynic, became suddenly the slave of an emotional crisis. A mist swam before my eyes, a lump crept into my throat. My brush slipped from my nerveless fingers. I was leaning against my easel, and my head was resting in my clasped hands. This, then, was what I had made of life! My best years were stealing away. Middle-age stared me in the face. What had I made of myself? What was I?—a vagabond, a strolling artist, a loiterer along the broad avenue, at whose end was the Temple of Fame, with my hands in my pockets, while others girded up their loins, and passed me, now one by one, now in a stream. The ignominy of content stung me to the quick. The sunshine seemed slipping from my life. And I knew whence had come this phase of sudden realization. I turned upon myself with a new fury. Fool A nameless artist, without money, or repute, a parasite hanging on to a little back-corner of the world. What folly! what folly!
When they returned, I knew at once that something had gone wrong. Helen went straight to her room, and Fred came hurrying in to me with a white troubled face. He threw off his hat and coat, and commenced filling his pipe with trembling fingers.
"What is it?" I asked softly.
He answered me with an oath—
"We have seen some of her people. They were in the Park. We got into a hansom, but they gave chase. One of them has spotted us down. They will find her out. They will make her go back!"
We looked at one another aghast.
"Go to the window," he directed.
"Is there a fellow in a long coat watching the house?"
A man in a frock-coat stood opposite, smoking a cigarette, and looking up. I pointed him out to Fred.
"I should like to wring his neck!" muttered Fred, looking over my shoulder. "It was he who saw us, that is his carriage at the corner. He is waiting for the others."
A brougham, drawn by a pair of dark horses, turned into the narrow street. The man who was waiting handed out a lady, and together they entered the house. Helen came running into our room.
"They have found me out!" she cried sadly. "I shall have to go away!"
I pointed below. "They have come for you already," I said.
She was very pale, and her eyes were wonderfully soft.
"This has been a mad freak of mine," she said, "but I shall never regret it—never! It will be a little corner of my life which I shall cherish. You two, and Mr. Dick, have been so good to me. You have been like brothers. You will come and see me afterwards, won't you?"
We promised sadly, and without enthusiasm. She shook hands with us and hurried away.
We heard her greet the new-comers on the landing. They all went together into her room. Fred and I looked into each other's eyes. Then he rushed away, and I heard the door of his room slam. I was alone!
I sank into my chair, and I closed my eyes. After all, it was for the best. The thing could not have gone on. And yet—
And then my little chain of reasoning snapped and fell to the ground. I saw only her face. I gave way to the strong, sweet delight of memory. I fashioned my own picture, and the breath of life seemed to be in it. Everything was so real—her soft, bright voice, the silken rustling of her skirts, the dainty trifles of her toilette—all those soft, indefinable suggestions of femininity, which had been like a revelation to me. Then—surely I was dreaming, or had my picture taken life?—there was a light step in the room, the faint swish of a trailing skirt, the sweet odour of violets. I kept my eyes half-closed. I would not look up or move my head. It was too sweet! I dared not risk losing it. Nearer and nearer it came. A woman's soft breath fell upon my cheeks. Something touched my lips—something warm and delicate and trembling. Again the swish of a skirt, the opening and dosing of a door.
I opened my eyes. Of course it was a dream, but on my knee was a little cluster of violets.
In the morning I had a visitor. Fred was away. I turned to meet him, his card in my hand, with clenched teeth and white face. He stood and bowed, a white-haired, courteous old gentleman. My resentment faded away.
"You will pardon the liberty—Mr. Montavon, I believe?"
I bowed, and pointed to my chair. He looked at it through his eye-glass, and declined it politely.
"I have only a moment," he said. "I am here at the request of the guardians of—of—"
"Of Miss D'Auxelles," I said.
He raised his eyebrows and bowed.
"Exactly. Of Miss D'Auxelles. I applaud your discretion, sir; it makes my task easier. Her guardians wish me to convey their thanks—their sincere thanks—to you, for the kindness and consideration which you showed their ward in her late most extraordinary escapade. They feel that your behaviour, and the behaviour of your friends, whom I regret not to have met, was most exceptional. I offer you their most heartfelt gratitude, and from the young lady—this."
I took the little parcel, and bowed.
"There was nothing at all exceptional in our treatment to the young lady," I said dryly; "nor can I see that there was anything very extraordinary in what you term her escapade.' We are not in the middle-ages!"
He took up his hat, looking at me fixedly, and smiled.
"You will doubtless understand better when you have examined the little offering from the young lady," he remarked. "Good-morning, sir."
He left me with another bow. I tore open the covering of the parcel, and slowly opened a jeweller's case. A magnificent opal pin, set with diamonds, flashed up at me from a bed of purple velvet. I scarcely noticed it, for I was unfolding with trembling fingers a little scrap of paper, on which was a single line of writing—
"From your comrade and sister, Helen, Princess d'Auxelles."
Then I understood.
Let me first explain how I became acquainted with Mr. Samuel Gredson, of 118, Great Russell Street, and the circumstances which led to the somewhat embarrassing legacy, part of which I am here endeavouring to relieve myself of.
Like myself he was a book-lover, and it was this common taste which brought us together. At every sale of books of any importance since I can remember, save one, he had been present, and it was a little incident in connection with this one which resulted in our becoming on speaking terms. There had been a somewhat meagre attendance, and, in consequence, several bargains had fallen in my way. Consequently, when I gathered up my newly-acquired treasures and turned to leave the sale-rooms, I was in an unusually amiable frame of mind.
Just as I was on the point of emerging into the street, an incident occurred which, had I been in anything less than a seraphic mood for me, would certainly have thrown me into a violent temper. I was carelessly run into, my worst corn trodden upon, and very nearly upset by an individual who was evidently in a desperate hurry, and whose frantic haste seemed to me, to say the least of it, reprehensible.
Now, not being near-sighted myself, I particularly object to being collided against, either in the street or anywhere else. I had opened my mouth to make a remark which would have been more or less forcible, when I recognized my assailant, and closed it again. My anger melted into pity. It was my rival and fellow-collector, and he had come too late for the sale.
Like myself, Mr. Samuel Gredson had escaped the snare of good looks. In other words, he was decidedly ugly. Neither had he that repose of demeanour, and collectedness of spirit, which a judicious course of philosophy is said to impart. He stood on one leg (I had trodden on the toes of his other foot), with his mouth wide open, glaring up at me from behind a pair of thick, blue spectacles, and clutching convulsively at my arm. As he said nothing I began to feel uneasy. The situation was, to say the least of it, peculiar.
"Are you unwell?" I inquired hesitatingly.
He found breath to speak at last; but he took no notice of my question, which I thought a little rude.
"Lot 187, is it sold?" he faltered out in a thin squeaky tone.
"It is," I answered with some dignity. "I am the purchaser."
He made use of an expression which I feel justified in keeping to myself. It sounded very big and very profane, though, from such a little morsel of humanity.
"Will you sell?" he asked quickly.
I hesitated. To tell the truth, I had bought the book to sell. It was a first edition, and far too expensive for my shelves. He saw the hesitation, and a gleam of joy shone in his furrowed face.
"Come with me," he said, plucking me by the arm. "Not a word! Not a word! Come with me!"
Not being in a particular hurry I humoured him, and allowed myself to be dragged into a hansom. During our drive I endeavoured to open the negotiations, but he declined to listen to me.
"Not a word! Not a word!" he repeated, drumming with both fists upon the cab apron. I looked at him in amazement, and conceived an opinion with regard to his sanity, which, as I have since recalled it, need not be mentioned here.
In a few minutes the cab pulled up at 118, Great Russell Street. My companion jumped out lightly, paid the driver, and gave a tremendous peal at the bell. A man-servant in sober black livery answered it, and, seeing us, fell back respectfully. I was hurried across the hall, through a handsomely furnished dining-room, in which I have since eaten some excellent dinners, and into one of the finest libraries I have ever seen in any private house.
My new friend took me by the arm, and hurried me towards a particular section. Here he stooped down and reverently ran his finger along a row of ancient calf-bound volumes.
"Decamerons, first editions, every one of them," he exclaimed, with bated breath. "Yours only is wanted to make the set complete. What will you take for it?
"I gave twenty-five guin—"
"I will give you fifty," he interrupted, his voice trembling with excitement. "It is worth it—it is dirt cheap."
"I will take thirty-five," I answered; "neither more nor less. That is its value."
"Done," he cried; and, going to his cabinet, he wrote me a cheque with shaking fingers...
That is how I came to know Samuel Gredson. We were continually meeting one another after that, and we became, to a certain extent, intimate. We had a common hobby, we were both bachelors, and we were both ugly; besides which there were other less important points concerning which we were in sympathy. Our meetings were always at his house. Once, I remember, I asked him to dine with me; but on that occasion he made himself so disagreeable that I never asked him again. To this day his memory is unpopular in my household, amongst who it is commonly reported that on leaving he expressed himself as thirsting for the blood of my cook. The subject was not afterwards mentioned between us; but it was tacitly understood that the hospitality in future should be on his side.
He was at no time a great talker, nor was he in the least communicative. He never told me anything of his family or his past history, nor was I in any way curious. But now I think of it I can remember more than one occasion towards the end of an evening over a farewell pipe, when he had exhibited signs of uneasiness, as though he had something in his mind which he was half disposed to communicate to me. But having no idea of the tremendous revelation which trembled on his lips, I never gave him any encouragement, and so that revelation has descended to me as a legacy.
I was at Leamington when he was taken ill, but I returned to town at once. Notwithstanding my haste he was past all articulate speech when I arrived, but he was still conscious, and a faint gleam of pleasure struggled across his homely face when I entered the room. He drew out a thin, trembling hand from underneath the coverlet, and placed it in mine. He tried to speak, but it was useless, and the effort snapped the thin thread by which his life had been hanging. He closed his eyes and died.
After the funeral the lawyer read the will to me, and to my surprise I found myself the legatee of a handsome sum of money and a long list of valuable books from his library, on condition that at my death they were passed on with the rest of his collection to the British Museum. There was also a sealed letter to me, which from its size and weight I judged to be of some length. After the lawyer had offered me his congratulations and departed, I ordered in the lamp, and then and there broke the seal, with very little idea of what lay in store for me. Word for word, without comment or explanation, I here give its contents to the world, according to his wish—
"MY DEAR HAMILTON—Some one has remarked in one of those fine musty old volumes which you and I prize so much, that the man to whom genius or talent has been given, is, as it were, the trustee of a divine charity, and that he will be judged hereafter according to the use which he has made of his gifts. By a similar process of reasoning the man to whom some hidden force of nature has been revealed, is bound to communicate the same to his fellows. That I may be acquitted of guilt in this respect, I am leaving you this letter as a legacy. Do with it as you think well. I rely altogether upon your judgment. But you may take the word of a dying man that its contents are a true and faithful narration of what happened to me on the night of October the nineteenth, 19—.
"I have held my peace during my lifetime for a certain reason. As a generation we are only on the threshold of knowledge after many thousand years of profound thought and scientific research. But it is a fact we do not care to own to. We are sensitive on the subject of our ignorance, and we seek to veil it by an affectation of scepticism. The things which are beyond our understanding we ridicule. The effects which our puny, half-developed reasoning faculties cannot trace back to a definite cause we refuse to credit, however plainly they be before our eyes. It is the old story of ignorance holding up before her eyes the cloak of narrow-sighted and narrow-minded prejudice; and babbling forth with a sweet, but intensely provoking imperturbation the same threadbare tale of disbelief in the existence of phenomena irreconcilable with her miserable imperfect notions of existence. And realizing all this I have held my peace even from you, friend, for I have no mind to have my story received with banter and ridicule, to be congratulated upon my imagination, and to have my earnestness met by renewed incredulity and mirth."
"This then is what I might have told you, Hamilton, you and all the world, if I had not been withheld by these considerations, that I myself have been for a brief period a shadowy member of that mysterious indefinable spirit-land, which is regarded with so much irreverent superstition and obstinate scepticism by the unlearned of this ignorant generation. Miraculous this may sound; I care not, for it is true.
"It happened seven years ago on the night of the nineteenth of October, 19—, whilst my body lay writhing in the throes of a well-nigh mortal sickness, and my life hung upon a thread, there stole over me suddenly a feeling of great peace, and a cessation of all pain. The familiar objects in my room, and the faces around my bed-side, faded away in a dim mist, and at first I thought that it was death. But it was not so. My senses, some of them at least, were still with me, and they were evidences that the spirit of life was not yet altogether quenched. I seemed for a while to be in a state of trance, unable to rightly determine in what conditions or amongst what surroundings I was still permitted to exist, until, like the sound of some monastery bell over the clear surface of unrippled waters, I heard my own name softly breathed, and I awoke from my chaotic torpor. Slowly my senses returned to me; I was in my own library, seated in my own easy chair. Everything around me was as it had always been, except that a thick layer of dust rested upon the furniture, which seemed to me to have become old and shabby, whilst long cobwebs hung down from the ceiling, and were stretched across my bookcases and shelves. Seated on a high stool by the side of one of these latter, was a man with his back to me, evidently absorbed in reading a volume which he had just reached down from the shelf. As he appeared to be a complete stranger to me, and was at any rate there without my invitation, I felt it necessary in some measure to assert myself. Accordingly I cleared my throat, and with some slight misgivings gave vent to a little cough. There was no result. I repeated it a little louder, and the intruder, for as such I regarded him, turned slowly round, and retaining a finger in the book which he half closed, gazed mildly down upon me. He certainly was not a formidable-looking personage. His frail form was clothed in garments of ancient cut and style; but my eyes passed these over carelessly, and dwelt upon his mobile oval face, with its gentle expression, half humorous, half pathetic, and looked into his soft brown eyes, full of a mild, interested inquiry. Where had I seen that face before? Nowhere, I was assured, and yet it seemed in a sense familiar, nay, more than familiar, like the face of an old friend.
"I looked at him wondering, and he returned my gaze with a quiet curiosity, unmixed with any impatience or annoyance; then he spoke in a low, silvery tone, with a faint, yet wonderfully sweet smile, hovering over his lips.
"'You seem surprised to see me here,' he said. 'It is the b—books; and he waved his hand towards the well-filled shelves, which have been the one interest and pride of my life.
"My slight resentment (although I am naturally a choleric man) was all disarmed by his gentle speech, and I hastened to reply, 'You are welcome, quite welcome. But will you tell me who you are? Your face seems familiar, and yet I cannot remember.'
"He interrupted me with a musical little laugh, 'Ah! you are f—fresh amongst us. Welcome! You should know m—me if these are all your books. You have r—read this, and this?'
"He touched two volumes with his forefinger, and looked up at me pleasantly. They were the Essays of Elia, and I knew in a moment in whose presence I was. I was dumb.
"'I—I'm glad you've come this way,' he went on, changing his position to a somewhat easier one, and laying down the volume which he had been reading.'I—I've been longing for a g—g—gossip with some one f—fresh. Beaconsfield—I beg his p—pardon, he was a Lord, wasn't he?—was the last kindred spirit with whom I could g—g—get a word, and he wouldn't stop. I don't think he c—cared much about me, and d—directly he saw Burke he rushed off after him, and they've b—b—been discussing the French R—R—Revolution ever since. Hang the French R—Revolution! Coleridge talked me sick of it long ago, and then M—Milton comes and hammers it all in a—again the other way. Seen Coleridge yet?'
"I shook my head; speech was impossible.
"'No? Ah, there is something for you to look forward to then. We must get him away from K—Kant for a minute or two and have a c—chat with him. P—P—Perhaps you haven't been amongst us l—long. You seem a trifle d—dazed. I was when I f—first came, c—c—couldn't understand it at all. We're here to get rid of our b—bad habits, you know. P—Punning and swearing were m—my worst, but I am g—getting out of them fast. It isn't such a very unpleasant sort of existence a—after all.'
"'And the old familiar faces,' I ventured to ask, 'are they here?'
"He smiled, as though well pleased at the quotation.
"'M—Manning is here,' he said, and old George Dyer, and Talfourd, and C—C—Crabb Robinson, C—Coleridge I t—told you of.'
"'And And Cousin Bridget?' I asked.
"His lips parted in a sweet, half melancholy smile, as he answered me; it was a kind of ethereal smile, which, while it lasted, lent his face an almost angelic beauty.
"'Ah! no, Mary had no faults,' he said softly, none save that she—loved me more than I deserved. I shall s—see her, some day, in a better place.'
"' And Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Kit Marlowe, and the others of the old school?' I inquired eagerly. 'Where are they? Shall I see them?'
"He looked more cheerful at me."
"'Shakespeare is here, but we are not friendly. Beaumont, Massinger, Marlowe, Burns, Chapman, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Hartley I see most of. Beaumont and Fletcher and M—Marlowe p—profess themselves much indebted to me. I know n—not why it should be so. Smollett, too, thinks that h—he owes something to my c—championship. It is k—kind of them all, but I think that they make too much of m—my p—poor commendations.'
"'I should never have read Smollett but for your praise of him,' I said. You said that you were not friends with Shakespeare. Does he owe you nothing?'
"He thinks not; Mary would be troubled if she k—knew it, but he likes little our t—tales, and less my essay on his t—t—tragedies. I wish I'd let 'em alone. Every one seems to have a c—craving to be most noted f—for the least worthy p—part of their work. Shakespeare desired to reign f—for ever in men's thoughts as a dramatist. He lives as a p—poet. He should be satisfied, but he isn't. I wish the handful of m—men and women who remember me, thought of me s—sometimes as a humble p—poet, instead of a critic. Hazlitt was a finer c—critic than I. His table t—talk's worth the l—lot of my poor essays. There are one or t—two which it p—pleases me to think have not been b—buried. The r—rest I don't care twopence about. Seen the old l—lakey poet yet? Ah, I f—forgot he only just passed through with Dorothy.'
"'He is in a b—better place. Dear old Southey. He will be h—happy with Dante and Chaucer and Spenser. Ah! there will be a m—meeting for us all some day.'
"There was something which I longed to ask, but I feared to. At last I blurted it out.
"'There was, some of us thought, a living Alice. Were we right? Don't answer me unless you like.'
"Again that wonderfully sweet smile illuminated his refined face, and hovered for a while upon his lips, full of tender regret, and ineffable sorrow. He shook his head.
"'The l—love which I lost on earth, I c—c—can never win now,' he said slowly. Earthly love can be renewed here and above, but n—n—new affections cannot be k—kindled, and she n—never k—knew that I loved her. In h—heaven as on earth the children of Alice call Bartram father. B—But I shall have M—Mary,' he added, speaking in a lighter tone. 'Dear Mary! Who could take her place?'
"None with him, I knew. The love of such a brother for such a sister, immaculate in its purity, having for its basis self-sacrifice, and strengthened by the companionship of a lifetime, could not find its annihilation in the grave of either. Fittest love for him in the future as it was here. Best for him, and happiest for her. 'There are others who should be with you?' I said after a short pause. 'Ben Jonson and Bowles?'
"His face clouded over again, as he sadly shook his head.
"'Poor old Ben! I scarcely looked for him. To t—tell the t—truth I was s—surprised to see K—Kit Marlowe; and B—Bowles, it will be long before we see him, but we shall some day. T—Talking about Jonson though, the old D—Doctor is here, and h—hates me almost as m—much as I'm afraid of him. G—Goldsmith's here too. I m—must co—confess I was relieved to see him, for he was a bad lot was little Goldfish. Shelley and Byron and Scott are w—wandering about somewhere, but we don't speak. They say I slighted 'em, and very likely I did. I never understood Shelley, and Byron was a sensual animal, for all his poetry. K—Keath was worth the pair of 'em. Scott I underrated perhaps. He should have written the story of J—Jeannie Deans before Waverley.'
"There was one whose name I only ventured to utter timidly, for I dreaded the answer, and with reason. Most brilliant of writers, but most contemptible of men. Poor De Quincey! Hartley Coleridge has sobbed for you, and Elia dropped a tear upon my book; would that there had been no cause. I asked a question, another personal one, it was answered readily.
"'You are right,' he acknowledged with gentle emphasis. I ought never to have left the East India House. I might have survived even Coleridge's d—death, if there had been something which I was b—b—bound to do. There was n—nothing, and it k—killed me. Poor Mary was so much away, and the d—days seemed so long when they all b—belonged to me, that I was e'en wishing them over before they had begun. Ah f those d—deadly l—l—long summer all day days, with but a short hour's candle-light, and no f—fire-light, I g—grew tired of them, I c—can't tell you.'
"'And yet,' I said, 'we have thought it strange that when you had your entire freedom you did not start some more continuous, more voluminous work. A novel for instance, or a drama.'
"He shook his head, in grave but gentle dissent.
"'No, no, I had never the heart to attempt another drama after "John Woodvill." Even when I tried my hand at a f—farce, M. H. you know, it was a rank failure. Mary and I ourselves h—hissed it f—from the pit. It read well enough, but it was p—poor rubbish on the stage. Criticism suited me best. I was never a genius. I only had the g—gift in a slight degree of detecting it in others. A c—copyist. An imitator with a style, though a very p—poor one, of my own. That was me. Hazlitt surpassed me in my own d—domain, but he always k—kept at l—loggerheads with the world, and they all h—hated him.'
"'He was a cynic,' I answered, 'and the world hates cynicism when it is directed against itself. Hazlitt was always unfashionable and out of date. Yet he wrote English eloquently.'
"'N—None more so, n—none more so,' assented his friend earnestly, would that I had had his style. My poor scribblings ever seemed to me frivolous by the side of his logical trenchant essays, as p—polished and s—sparkling as a well cut diamond. What thought the world of G—Godwin when you left it? As little as ever?'
"'Less,' I answered decidedly. 'A hopelessly black sheep. Some day his works will be entirely obsolete. The sooner the better.'
"'And of Byron and Shelley. They were of his school, you know.'
"'Their works live; Byron is the more popular, but Shelley will live the longer in men's thoughts. He is something mystical, but always sublime. Byron is sometimes commonplace, often vulgar. But he is more in touch with mankind.'
"'He is of a lower type,' interrupted my gentle questioner energetically. 'Shelley I knew and liked, Byron I always esteemed a—a—a low-bred, sensual pot-poet, a creature of sense, a living example of the triumph of p—passion over mind. He might have been a great poet, if he had not been an ignoble man. The spirit of poetry was there, but it was dragged through the mire, and p—p—prostituted by the man. How think people of him now?'
"'Better than he deserves. Bowles has not lived, alas! Nor is Landor read!'
"'Nor have I lived as a poet,' he remarked, with a shade of sadness in his tone. Yet methought some of my sonnets were p—p—passable, though Coleridge used to pull them to bits. I did wrong to publish with Lloyd and him. I should have stood better alone. My poor g—glimmering light was quenched by the radiance of his glory. He was spoken of as a poet, and I as a p—poor p—punster, who had a talent for writing verses, some g—good, some b—bad. Ah! well, one is an ill judge of one's own work. I never thought that those hasty fragments, not worthy of the title of essays, would live beyond their day.'
"'They will live for ever,' I exclaimed enthusiastically. As long as there is an English-speaking people, the Essays of Elia will be amongst the classics of their literature.'
"He looked up with a gratified protest trembling upon his lips. Suddenly his expression changed, and he threw down the book with which he had been trifling.
"'Here comes the king of bullies,' he exclaimed hurriedly. Farewell, sir; I am away. He is seeking me. Farewell.'
"By what means I know not, but before the echoes of his last word had died away he was gone, and while I sat there wondering, another figure loomed before me. I looked up and saw standing in his place a stout, elderly man, of unwieldy figure, dressed in a slovenly, old-fashioned style, with a wig all awry, and dirty hands. His expression was remarkably stern, and his tone, when he spoke, was censorious and autocratic, almost bombastic.
"'Sir, have you observed a small lean man, hanging about in this chamber; a miserable, shrunken up little punster? Charles Lamb they call him. I seek him, but he eludes me.'
"I surveyed the questioner, meditating an angry reply, but while it yet trembled on my lips the knowledge of his identity dawned upon me, and I was dumb. He waited for an answer, but receiving none he turned angrily away.
"'Sir, you are a jackass, a consummate jackass,' he remarked energetically, after which polite valediction he, too, vanished.
"Shades of the illustrious dead! Whom next was I to see? Charles Lamb and Dr. Johnson, what might not be in store for me? I sat there excited, full of anticipations, forgetful almost of the strange state in which I was. Then suddenly I became conscious that a change was coming, the room and floor seemed to recede from me, and darkness swam before my eyes. I felt hands passed around me, and I felt myself being carried away out of the room and upstairs to my bed. Then I must have slept, for when I awoke it was broad daylight.
"The part of my adventure which I am now going to tell, and which fills me with indignation, is this: When I recovered sufficiently to tell my tale, I was disbelieved. The doctor laughed at me, and the nurse, although she admitted that during a heavy sleep I had risen from my bed and been found in the library, declared that I was in a stupefied state all the time. When I protested, the doctor smilingly assured me that it was an hallucination. I knocked that doctor down, weak though I was, and he was careful in future how he alluded to the matter. But it didn't mend things at all. Every one to whom I commenced to tell the story behaved in the same idiotic way. They all listened, and they all shook their heads with the same provoking smile, Then, in disgust, I left off attempting to tell it; but lest any should say hereafter that I did wrong in keeping to myself so strange and unprecedented an adventure, I here hand over a full and exact account of it to you, friend Hamilton, and on to your shoulders I shift the responsibility of its narration, or non-narration. I shall not hear them sneer who read it incredulously, nor shall I gain the sympathy of those who honour me by believing it. But at any rate, I shall know that I have done my duty in leaving behind me for the world's derision or wonder, the true facts of my unique visit to another stage of human, or rather spiritual existence."
Word for word, line for line, I have here reproduced the manuscript left in my keeping by my friend, Samuel Gredson. I make no comment, and I express no opinion. Thus, it seems to me, can I most fitly discharge my literary executorship.
He was pale-faced, round-shouldered, and anaemic, a creature obviously deficient in vitality, with the hall-mark of servitude stamped very dearly upon his commonplace features, and the patience of Job shining in his hollow-set brown eyes. In every respect he was entirely out of touch with his environment; one could only wonder what had brought him so far from his accustomed haunts. His shabby yet respectable black clothes, his well-frayed linen, and the ink-stains still lingering upon his finger-nails—these things bespoke his occupation as plainly as though he had stood there among the bracken with a ledger under his arm and a pen behind his ear.
For by some strange chance he had wandered far from the city, and found his way into a very world of sunshine; over his head it came streaming through the delicate interlacings of those gently waving green elm-leaves—a rich golden flood, warm, yet very soft and sweet, there in the deep shade. He had thrown himself, after a moment's silent absorption, upon a grassy bank; his limbs stretched out over the mossy earth, his recumbent form the very personification of absolute yet awkward ease. His eyes began slowly to blink and then to close: the murmurous drone of bees at work and the pleasant heat had made him sleepy. It was really the country into which he had roamed; there were birds and insects everywhere, as well as wild flowers and sunshine: the perfume-laden air was all alive with them. Just now a bumble-bee had balanced himself upon that stiff blade of grass yonder—hear him now, buzzing away in the bracken behind; what a lazy, sense-lulling noise! A brown tortoiseshell butterfly came floating in from the flower-lined hedgerow alongside the cornfield, and a beetle whose curved shell-like back was as black as night crept out from behind that piece of grey boulder where the honeysuckle hung down in long odoriferous wreaths. To one born in the country these are all common things enough, but to him, a city clerk, a counting-house machine whose life had been spent upon an office-stool, and whose walks were ever upon the stone pavements of a Babylonic wilderness—to him they were all new and full of wonder.
It was many a year since he had seen an uncaged singing bird so close as the bright-eyed linnet who had perched himself only a few yards away upon that slender hawthorn twig, calling with shrill, sweet notes to his mate, whose far-off chirping sounded like a weaker echo of his own more musical note. And what air—how bright and pure, how smokeless! Was the sky ever really so blue as that over Tooley Street, he wondered? Surely not! And those little fleecy, white clouds—surely they never floated like that over Bermondsey! Listen! There in his ears, like the soft music of the sea, came the gentle rushing of a summer breeze, rustling amongst the bending corn, whose tops were full even to bursting. His eyes closed of their own accord, he could not keep them open any longer; a sort of Nirvana of dreamless repose crept over his brain, a day-sleep from which he was suddenly awakened by the sharp snapping of a twig close at hand. He sat up, vaguely alarmed! Yonder, in the lowest fork of that elm-tree, sat the wanton disturber of his drowsiness. It was—yes, he decided that it must be, a squirrel! He had never seen one before, but it could be nothing else. What bright little black eyes, and what a tail! Off he scampered up into the deeper recesses of the thick-leaved hazel-bush beyond. The man regretted his disappearance, and sighed.
He was awake now and beginning to fell lonely. He drew out his watch, a time-worn Waterbury, with a little black cord attached, and he sighed. Surely she would not be long now! He was impatient to think that she should be losing, for his sake, one moment of this wonderful morning. Cooking! He was quite content to live without it for these few halcyon days; they would so soon be over, and then—God only knew when they would come again! For the door of his prison-house had been opened quite by chance; it was surely nothing but a whim of Mr. Rupert's to lend his uncle's clerk this little Surrey cottage and to insist upon a week's holiday for him! Good-natured! Of course it was good-natured; but, all the same, it was a whim. The man fell to wondering—wondering whence had come to him this unexpected kindness. For years Mr. Rupert, junior partner in the "firm," had barely answered his respectful "Good-morning." What had made him carelessly and without explanation offer this strange kindness? The man's brain had grown misty through many years of mechanical work. There was something there—a thought without substance, or was it a fear? He pressed his hand to his forehead and sighed.
He stood up to look for her, drawing in, as he clambered a few yards higher up the hillside, a long breath of that most delicate of perfumes—the scent of sun-warmed heather, carried on the bosom of a south wind. Yonder, through the trees, he could see purple streaks of it upon the downs, and here and there clumps of yellow gorse, stretching right to the borders of that dark belt of pine woods; it was all very beautiful.
Would she come soon, he wondered? He wanted her to see the squirrel, and to listen with him to that low music from the cornfield. He knew how she loved all these strange country sounds and sights, and he grudged every moment that she was not there with him enjoying them. What could she be doing, he wondered, to keep her so long? He sighed as he remembered what a conscientious pleasure she seemed to take in keeping that strange little thatched cottage, with its red tiles and queer diamond-framed windows, as clean and trim as she somehow managed to keep their six-roomed "villa" in Bermondsey! Only here there was something to reward her for her pains—their own little home, alas! at its best was miserably, depressingly ugly. A wave of bitterness rose up from the bottom of the man's heart; this touch of nature had done him the unkindness of loosening for a moment the bonds of his shackledom. The scales dropped from his eyes; he stood face to face with his misery, and thought of their home, his and hers. It was in a hot, dirty back street, dose to the river, and opposite a piece of waste ground, where squalid children made a weary pretence at play, and where the filth and rubbish of generations seemed to have accumulated. Twenty-nine shillings a week will not go very far in London—and then there were debts to pay off. Never mind how they had come by them; they were honourable debts. If it had been only himself—well, he could have borne all this and more; for nature had given to him some touch of that marvellous unselfishness which sends many a man tottering through the world with a patience almost Christlike, and the burdens of other men heaped upon his bowed shoulders. But there was Edith! She had been used to different things. God had never meant her for a drudge! She read poetry—how he wished that he could understand it!—and she loved pretty things. Ah, if only he could get them for her! Sometimes he had seen her stand at the window of their little front room, and shiver from head to foot as she looked out across the filthy street to the desolation beyond. He wondered—what a black, chill thought!—had he sinned in marrying her? Had she understood how miserable a creature a city clerk is, and always must be, how hopeless his limitations, how slowly, shilling by shilling, his wages creep up, as his hair grows greyer and his figure more bent? If God had only given him muscle instead of those wretched smatterings of brain power! He saw himself suddenly as he was, saw whither he was drifting—the decadence of his faint shadow of manhood, the closing in of the iron walls! There was a sob in his throat; it was a moment of rare revolt. God! what chance had he! The same little cycle of work day by day, the same walk to the office, the same walk back! The daily pitiful struggle for respectability with his rusty black clothes, patched and mended, and his hat ironed almost bare of all nap. Every day had been hammered into almost the exact similitude of the day that preceded and the day that followed it. Life and hope must narrow continually; it is habit which crushes. Did she understand these things, he wondered? God only knew! He wished pitifully that she would come; the music in the cornfields was growing fainter, and the squirrel had vanished from sight.
At last! He could see her white gown on the other side of the hedge. There was some one with her, a gentleman. It was Mr. Rupert! What was he doing away from his house full of guests, and—he was actually carrying their lunch, neatly done up in a brown paper parcel! The man rubbed his eyes—yes! it was quite true—he was not dreaming! How earnestly they were talking, too! Now he had taken her book—it was a volume of poetry, and he was marking something in it with a pencil. The man took an uneasy step forward—should he go and meet them? No. He would stay where he was; he would be ill at ease with Mr. Rupert. They came nearer; she seemed to be quoting from the book in her hand, and he was silent. They reached the gate; again the man moved, then hesitated: he would not go, he would wait! They were talking as equals; it would be hateful to have to call Mr. Rupert "Sir" before her. They lingered there for a moment; he was leaning against the gate looking at her. How beautiful she was! He began to speak—how plainly the words travelled through that still air!
"I wonder, Mrs. Spearmain, if I might venture to make a very daring personal remark; it is half a question, too. Perhaps I should call it an enigma."
"I think that you had better not!"
The man scarcely recognized the woman's voice: it sounded to him strained, suppressed, unnatural! Her eyes seemed to be avoiding her companion's; she was looking steadfastly across the cornfields.
What did she see upon the hills yonder? Perhaps she, too, was listening to that faint, sweet music.
"Nevertheless I must," he persisted quietly; "and I rely upon you for a faithful answer. Why did you marry David Spearmain?"
The summer heat had gone; the man who listened was suddenly cold! His brain was in a whirl; he wanted to cry out, but there was a weight upon his lips. He was forced to listen!
The woman faced her questioner; her head was thrown proudly back, but her lips were quivering, and she was very pale.
"That is a question which you should not have asked," she said coldly. "It is—"
"No business of mine, you would say," he interrupted impatiently. "Quite true Yet answer me."
"I will not!" she murmured passionately.
He smiled down at her with a slow, curious smile.
"Then I am answered," he said. "I am content!"
She turned upon him, and to the man who listened her finger-nails appeared to be buried in the wood of the gate!
"I was penniless, alone, wretched! He nursed my father, he was good to me, he is always good to me! I—I love him!"
It seemed strange to him, a pale, scared figure standing like a ghost in the shadow of the elm-tree, that the sun was shining still so brightly. There was a cold weight upon his heart, a mist before his eyes; her voice had faltered in the middle of that last sentence!
"Forgive me," her companion said softly, "but it is not possible; you and he are of different worlds. He is a complete human automaton—a mere machine; he has neither ambition nor imagination—he has not the capacity for either. You have them both! You have education and sensibility; you were never meant for such a life with such a man! It is sapping your days away; in the end it would drive you mad—but the end will not come."
The rich, warm colour had flooded her cheeks; she drew a step farther away from him.
"What do you mean?" she faltered.
"I mean that you will leave him," he answered slowly. "It is inevitable; you cannot help it; you owe it to yourself. Nature never meant you to be a drudge!"
"There are worse things," she murmured.
Then he stooped down and whispered something in her ear, bending eagerly towards her, and with a sudden fire in his eyes.
She left him at once without a word; he remained there, vexed and irresolute. Her movement had been so quick and determined that he had been powerless to detain her. The man saw her coming towards him, and though her face was as pale as the white poppy which he had plucked a few moments before, there was a spot of colour burning in her cheeks and a strained look under her eyes. He stole farther away, back into the little tangled wood, and threw himself upon the ground with a faint moan. Where he was now, the sound of the wind rustling amid the corn-tops came muffled and vague, and the sunlight was not. The linnet's song had ceased, and there was a deeper chill in the air than befitted a summer day. When she found him it seemed as though he had been asleep.
She was silent; so was he. Was it his fancy, or was she really kinder, more tender than usual? lie tried to talk to her, but there was a seal upon his lips; he wanted to tell her of the squirrel, to take her down to the hedgerow and bid her listen to that sweet, sad music among the breeze-swept corn, to show her the linnet's nest, and to give her the honeysuckle he had plucked from the flower-wreathed hedge. But he could do none of these things, for he was stricken with a sudden dumbness, and there was a strange aching in his heart. There were things dawning upon him which he had never understood! Was that indeed his death sentence which he had heard pronounced? Presently she said something to him; she was looking away through the trees, and her tone was dull and unemotional.
"David," she said, "would you mind very much if I asked you to do something which will seem very odd to you?"
"What is it?" he asked.
"I want to go back! I do not want to stay here any longer."
"We will go to-night," he answered quietly. "There is a train at six o'clock."
She looked at him in quick wonderment; she had expected incredulity, questions—he asked her none, he was content to go! All these beautiful sounds and sights, then, had failed to penetrate for one moment the hard husk of his materialism. Perhaps even he was pining for his worm-eaten desk and his musty ledger. Was it her fault that a shade of contempt passed across her face—that her own sense of despair grew deeper? But the man saw it, and his heart was near breaking.
Bermondsey was very hot, and there was a fetid smell from the piled-up nastiness of that wretched plot of waste ground. He went back to his desk, back to the endless grapplings with endless columns of figures, back to his part in the building up of other men's fortunes. Day by day he left home at half-past eight to the moment, turned the same corners and crossed the same streets, looking even into the faces of the same crowd of hurrying fellow-creatures. His coat was a little more rusty, and the nap of his hat had quite gone now. Sometimes he fancied that there were more grey hairs too; only yesterday one of his fellow-slaves had alluded to a stoop which had lately bent his shoulders. He was still a reliable machine; he made no mistakes, and his work was as neat as ever. Only sometimes in the dinner-hour (he was permitted the privilege of eating his sandwich upon the counting-house stool) or in the dead of night, when the woman by his side slept, he allowed himself the strange luxury of thought. He looked out into the vague shadows of their bare little bed-chamber, and he fancied that he could hear the low rustling of a summer wind in the elm-tree tops, and feel the sun warming his bones and brightening up the whole sad world. He heard the chirping of linnets, the clear song of a distant lark, and the deep, low humming of a whole world of insects, making strange minor music in the sunlit air. The squirrel came out from his leafy chamber and talked to him like an old friend; a black-headed chaffinch sat on a hawthorn twig and sang him a little song: Then a city clock, loud-tongued and brazen, chimed the hour, and his fanciful world faded away before that grim note of reality. He fell back upon the pillow, with lips tightly pressed together, lest that smothered groan might wake the girl who slept so calmly by his side.
But for him there was no sleep; in those long watches of the night he sometimes forgot that he was only a machine, his heart swelled, his eyes were dim, and he knew the full measure of his slavery. Why did she marry such a creature? Did she see his destiny, he wondered, written so pitilessly upon his plain, emotionless face, branded upon his speech, the hall-mark of his ignorance?
But when the daylight came he was himself again. With white face and leaden eyes he prepared for his daily slavery in the same slow, mechanical fashion. He made the usual remarks—he kept a little stock of them—and she answered him in the same spirit. But it was seldom that their eyes met, for the shadow was always there. She, too, he thought, seemed to be growing thinner; she read less poetry, she was always looking out with dull eyes upon a hopeless future; yet she was struggling bravely to do her duty. Every day there was a faint, wan smile, the usual inquiry as to the day's work, the weather, some other trifling word obviously prepared beforehand; and he answered her with rigid calm as he hung up his coat after carefully removing the dust from it and exchanging it for a still shabbier garment. Sometimes they took a weary little walk, mostly on Sundays, along an endless succession of ugly streets, bounded by squalid houses or dreary shuttered shops. There was no escape from their immediate environment, for he had no money for 'buses, and she was not strong enough to walk far. The pavements burned their feet, and their eyes were sore at the wilderness of bricks and mortar, the throngs of hideously dressed, ill-mannered neighbours, the utter absence of all things beautiful. The whole panorama was a nightmare to them. They were deep down in the hell of the poverty-stricken, and together—the man thought sometimes in those long watches of the night—together they could never escape from it. He had no increase of salary to hope for; if he had dared to ask for it, there were hundreds clamouring for his bread. He would be lucky, as old age came on, if he could keep his place. For him there was no climbing out—no escape. But for her! How long would she suffer it? God only knew! Sometimes he thought that he must cry out and ask her, but the shadow was there, and he dared not. They were walking together within its dark folds, and his tongue was palsied.
Now and then, very seldom, for he was a great sportsman, Rupert Denning came to the office. He passed the white stooping figure, who never looked up at his entrance, with a greeting half-contemptuous, hall-pitying! Once, however, he called him into his private office. It was a day when the man was feeling worse even than usual. All night long he had lain awake, and this morning there was a livid shade in his face, and his eyes were leaden. His collar was more badly frayed than ever, and his shirt—he was bound to make it last three days—was very soiled. With his block in his hand, he took down rapidly, and without error, a letter from the young man's dictation. In the midst of it there came a pause. After a while he raised his eyes. Mr. Rupert was doing him the honour to observe him closely; his lips were slightly curled, his eyes spoke of that pity which is much akin to contempt. The clerk knew well of what his master was thinking: he was wondering what magic he, the poor machine, had used to win a lady for his wife. Ah I well, it was simple magic after all. He had nursed her dying father; night after night they two had sat with him alone, watching and tending him through an illness from the fear of which all the neighbours had fled away in horror. His savings for five years had gone to bury that poor old man—a stranger, a fellow-lodger by chance. And there were other matters, but they were not important. Rupert Denning knew of none of these things, and he might well wonder. The eyes of the two men met across the table. He was a man of the modern world, devoted to the acquisition of new sensations, absolutely without self-consciousness. The light in a poor clerk's eyes had no meaning for him; yet he was dimly made to feel the presence of something almost resembling dignity in that motionless, shadowy figure, waiting so patiently at his elbow. He coughed, and finished the dictation of his letter.
That night the man walked home a little more slowly than usual. There was a burning pain in his head, and strange lights before his eyes. He said nothing to the woman, and they went to their room at the customary hour. But while she slept a strange thing came to him. He raised himself in the bed. Ah, what a change! It was true, then! He listened. Yes, the sea-music was awake in the cornfield, and the whole world outside the wood where he was lying was flooded with the golden sunlight! He laughed softly to himself with joy. See, there was a shaft of it, right at his feet, across the brown ant-heap and that little clump of purple foxglove! How the bees were working round the honeysuckle: the air was quivering with the buzz of their wings! He was watching a beetle now; he was a dull, unlovely insect enough, but he was creeping towards that line of sunlight. Now he had reached it. What a mighty change! How his wings gleamed! They were like burnished copper; he had suddenly become a beautiful thing! And here came his friend the squirrel! He had found some nuts in a hazel-bush yonder; but why, the man wondered, holding his burning head and staring steadily in front of him, was he sitting at the foot of the bed? and why did he look so solemn? What was that through the trees? The gleam of a white dress—two figures He listened to their voices! What was he asking her?
"Why did you marry him?"
The man moaned; there was a pain at his heart. He was on fire! What was he doing? He would wake Edith; he could not help it, the laughter would come! He waved his arms. Noble little linnet, sing away, sing away! If only he could catch that squirrel, Edith would like it so! She was out of bed now. She was trying to make him lie down; it was too bad, but he could not help laughing; how his sides ached! Her face was as white as death; she was frightened. What was she saying at the gate? A machine—a mere machine—that is what he was! Never mind, the fires were in his brain. He was free, free!
Once more their voices. The man was too weak to move. He lay still and looked out into the room; Rupert Denning was standing in the doorway with a great basket of flowers and a box under his arm. She had risen and was looking at him with a question in her face. The man heard his soft, pleasant voice.
"I do hope that you will not consider me an intruder, Mrs. Spearmain," he said. "We are all so glad to hear that the doctor gives you some hope after all. May I come in for a moment?"
She did not answer him at once, but he came in and closed the door after him.
"You are quite worn out," he continued, looking at her tenderly. "It is really too bad of you! I insist that you let me send you a nurse; it will be a pleasure to me to be allowed to serve you in any way."
The woman rose up and spoke.
"I thank you, Mr. Denning, but no one else shall nurse my husband."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It must be as you will, of course! At least you will accept some flowers from me, and these grapes."
"I am very much obliged," she answered, "but I already have all the flowers the doctor will permit in the room, and plenty of fruit."
"The sick man slowly turned his eyes. The table by his side was smothered with beautiful roses; one great red blossom had become detached and was lying upon his pillow. There was a bowl, too, full of such grapes as he had never seen before. He was bewildered; where did they come from if not from him? He, too, had seen them with surprise.
"You are very hard upon me," he said slowly. "Why do you keep up such a farce? I only desire your happiness. To give you pleasure, to atone for some of your past misery is my greatest ambition."
The man closed his eyes; the smothered groan which escaped from his lips was too faint a sound for them to hear.
"The only possible manner," the woman said, "in which you can further my happiness is to never let me see your face again. But before you go, listen! If he had died, you and your partner would have been his murderers. There are things in this world which I do not understand. People seem to accept them calmly, so I suppose they are what is called inevitable. But in God's world they will be righted somehow! You see what you have made of him! He is a human being, a better man than you, and he has as much right to live. You reap wealth from his labours and the labour of his fellows, and you keep him—like that—half-starved. While you are making a fortune you raise his salary grudgingly, shilling by shilling. You broke him upon the wheel! Oh, it is abominable!"
He listened to her quite unmoved.
"He had as much as he was worth; there are thousands who would have taken his place."
"Some day," she answered scornfully, "those thousands may be your judges! What is wrong I do not know. I have not thought of these things before, and I am an ignorant woman. But if there is a God of justice, there will be a balance struck some day between you and them."
She stopped him passionately.
"Oh, don't dare to call me by that name! Once for five minutes I let you talk to me foolishly. God knows I meant no harm! If he had died, I should have felt a murderess, for he overheard, and he said nothing. It is that and the misery of our life here which drove him mad. I have wronged him every moment. When I thought that he was content, and despised him for it, he was suffering cruelly. You gave him—what was it?—twenty-nine shillings a week? He let me think it was more; he starved himself day by day for my sake. Oh! he has been a hero, and I thank God that he will never darken your doors again."
He laughed unpleasantly as he prepared to go. "No one else will want him!"
The woman lifted up her head proudly.
"I shall want him. I could cry with joy when I think that at last I can repay a little devotion which rich men such as you could never understand. I have been left money—not a fortune, but enough to keep us, wherever we choose to live."
He looked at her thoughtfully. She was thin and haggard, but she was wonderfully beautiful.
"You are romantic," he said, "but you cannot make him anything save what he is; you can never be happy with him."
Then the man who lay upon the bed saw that she was trembling from head to foot with passion. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes flashed fire.
"Oh, you poor fool!" she cried, "haven't you the wit to see that I love him—that I have loved him all the time! Now go!"
And with that he went; and the woman, coming softly to the bedside, found the man's eyes open, and knew that he had been spared to her. She fell on her knees, and his thin wasted arms drew her face down to his; and in that moment the doors of their prison-house stood open.
I should like it to be distinctly understood at the outset of this brief narrative that I am not a disciple of any of the so-called apostles of modern psychology. I am going to tell a plain story in plain words, and leave any possible explanation of it to those who are interested in the great unknown science. There are men and women to-day rising up amongst us like prophets, and pointing upwards through the mists of an untrodden land to a light beyond the shadowy boundary dividing things material from things spiritual. Whether they be false prophets or true, another generation will determine. Only this much is certain, that the light they offer fails to pierce the curtain of darkness which hangs before our eyes, and that the truths which should become as manifest to us as floating dust in the dear sunlight are represented only by thin theories and hysterical but ineffective single assertions. The black clouds are nowhere pierced by the lightning of truth. All is still chaos, mysterious and impenetrable. It may well be true that there exist more things in this world than are dreamed of in our philosophy, but this much is also true—no voice has yet been lifted which can read the riddles of the new science, no hand has yet shown itself able to lift the veil between this and another world. Nor has any light yet been kindled in whose illumination those vast secrets are laid bare. Nothing is more certain and obvious than our profound ignorance concerning it. We are like blind men groping in the dark. In all probability we shall die as we have lived, without a gleam of absolute knowledge, looking out upon life with half-shut eyes. Yet the wisest of us are those who hold their peace and wait.
Twenty-four years ago I bought my first practice and furnished my first house. It was not a choice neighbourhood, nor was the practice itself either extensive or select; but in the ardour of youth I scarcely considered those drawbacks worth considering. At twenty-five years old one scarcely expects to start fife—in the professions, at any rate—in a very large way, and I was perfectly satisfied. The shining brass plate outside my door, on which was inscribed:
C. H. FAGGETT, M.D.,
compensated fully—to me, at any rate—for the shabbiness of my abode. I had fifty pounds a year of my own. I was unmarried, and had quite as much self confidence as was good for me, notwithstanding that the outlook demanded no ordinary share.
My patients were six in number, excluding my own family. I say excluding my own family, because from the time of my setting up for myself there was not one of them, from my youngest sister, aged six, to my father, who did not immediately develop some extraordinary and utterly unheard-of ailment, and persist in being treated for the same with due gravity. My father, who was one of the healthiest men living, began to complain from loss of appetite and dejection of spirits, and was unhappy until I had prescribed and administered a tonic; my mother, who scarcely knew what a cold was, began to talk gravely about her chest, and insisted upon a cough medicine; whilst Ada, my little sister, complained continually, but vaguely, of "bad feelings all over her body," and swallowed all the harmless physic I could bring her with absolute relish. "Rover," the family dog, was the most ungrateful of the household, for, after hearing one night a long account of his various and alarming ailments, I was induced at last to prepare for him a strong dose of castor oil, an attention for which he showed the most gross ingratitude, ever afterwards rising hurriedly at my entry into the room, and retiring under the table with an ominous growl and a sidelong glance, half threatening, half apprehensive.
To return to my patients proper. Five of them were totally uninteresting to me save as "cases;" the sixth was too poor to pay even my modest bill with anything like reasonable punctuality, yet she was the one whom I would have relinquished the least readily. I remember the first time she came for me, and how pitifully she stated her case.
"I don't know what is the matter with me, doctor. Perhaps you can tell. I have no pain—at least, no acute pain—to speak of; only sometimes I seem to ache all over, and I am growing thin—thinner every day. I get plenty to eat—quite plenty," she repeated, keeping her eyes anxiously fixed upon my face.
"I am afraid the food you take is scarcely nourishing enough," I said. "Do you mind telling me how old you are?"
"No. I am twenty-two."
Twenty-two! It seemed barely credible. I was young at my profession, and compassion was still easy. I looked at the high cheek-bones and sunken, dark-rimmed eyes, bright now with anxiety, at the long, wasted fingers and the simple black dress, hanging loosely around her shrunken figure, and I sighed. She seemed to read my look, and her eyes filled with tears.
"I suppose I do look rather bad," she said nervously. "Can't you do anything for me, doctor? I'm very poor; but—"
"I can't do much," I interrupted; "but I can tell you what is the matter. You have some trouble which you are allowing to prey upon your mind, and you are starving. I am afraid that sounds a little blunt; but it's the truth."
She looked frightened, almost horrified.
"Starving! Oh, no, no, doctor; indeed, I am not that. I spend every penny that I can upon food. I must save a little for—never mind what for—but I must save a little."
"I'm sorry I cannot help you further, then," I said, rising. "I have told you what is the matter with you. No medicine could do any good. Of course, I don't know what the saving you mention is for; but you must remember that you are paying for it with your life. It is my duty as a doctor, you know, to speak plainly. You ask me what is the matter with you, and I tell you—starvation!"
She turned away and looked wearily out of the window.
"Thank you, doctor," she said, as I turned to go. "May I ask you one more question?"
"Is it that which is making me so worn and pinched-looking? I feel like an old woman when I look in the glass."
"It has its effect upon your appearance, of course," I answered.
"Will they—come back again—I mean, my looks?" she asked wistfully, with a little tremble in her voice and her eyes very earnestly fixed upon me. "I used to be better-looking once, and I shouldn't like him—my friends, I mean—to see me like this when he—when they come. I will try and eat a little more. Will that help, do you think?" she asked eagerly.
"That would make all the difference," I assured her; "commence at once. Have a good meal this evening, and you'll feel all the better for it."
"Very well; I will, then. And—and, doctor, how much?" she commenced wistfully.
"Nothing until I have to give you medicine," I interrupted shortly. "I'll send my bill in then, fast enough. Good-day."
My patient—Miss Desmond, she called herself—took my advice, and in a few weeks there was a marked change in her. I was scarcely prepared, however, for the transformation which I witnessed on my last professional visit.
It was Christmas morning, and I was just starting westwards to spend a day with my people. On the doorstep I encountered a messenger from her. She was quite well, but she wished to see me, if I could spare the time to go round. I went at once.
My first impression on entering the room was that I was in the presence of a stranger, and as that vanished, I found myself marvelling at the metamorphosis. The ragged black gown, the wan cheeks and dull eyes, were things of the past. I found myself greeted by a tall, graceful woman, clad in a simple but elegant gown of soft pink and black. A most becoming glow had dyed her pallid cheeks, and her eyes were sparkling with pleasurable excitement. She looked at me with slightly parted, tremulous lips, as though anxious to see whether I noted the change. At my look of surprise her features relaxed into a half-deprecating, half-pleased smile.
"You see a difference doctor?" she asked.
"I do, indeed, Miss Desmond," I answered warmly. "Let me offer you my sincere congratulations. Is it out of compliment to the season, may I ask?"
"Partly; and partly for another reason. I am expecting a visitor."
Her tone was hesitating, almost shy. Yet in a certain way it seemed as though she desired to make a confidant of me. I pulled a chair up to the fire and waited.
"Yes, Miss Desmond."
"You don't think my gown is too thin, do you? The room is quite warm."
I leaned over and felt her arms; but the wistful look with which she was watching me checked the remonstrance which had been upon my lips.
"Perhaps not. You must be careful to keep out of draughts, though."
"I will, I will, indeed. And, doctor."
She hesitated, and the colour came and went quickly in her delicate cheeks. There was no doubt about it, she was a perfectly beautiful woman.
"Do you think that it is a pretty gown? It is a little old, I know," she went on hurriedly, "but it is nicely made, and the colours used to suit me. I was different then, though," she added with a sigh.
I was scarcely more than a boy, and a most unprofessional lump had risen in my throat. To me there was something very pathetic about that dress and the other little attempts at decoration about the room. I knew too well the meaning of that exquisite colour and the unreal beauty of her face.
Loath though I was to admit it to myself, they were too ethereal for health. It was like the strange, star-like beauty of some tropical plant, which blossoms into perfection and fades in a single day. My heart was sad, and though I answered her cheerfully, I kept my face turned away.
"You look charming, Miss Desmond. Let me wish you a very happy Christmas, and no end of good fortune in the next year."
"Thank you, doctor. Do you know, I believe that your wish will come true. I am expecting a visitor."
Visitor! It was odd how interested I felt. I sat up in my chair and looked at her inquiringly.
"Indeed! Some of your relations, I presume? I am glad."
She was a full minute before she answered me. During that time I could hear my heart beat, and I crushed a fallen cinder under my boot into powder.
"No; it is only—a friend."
She was too absorbed to notice or resent the impertinence of the question. There was a shy, soft look in her downcast eyes and a happy smile parting her lips.
Her thoughts were far away, and I was forgotten. As for me, the light seemed to have died out of the bright winter's day. The cheerful, blazing fire had dwindled down into a handful of white ashes. I felt chilled and heartsick. I could not understand what had happened; and I know that I had a longing to get away into my room and lock the door upon my misery. Yet I must be quite certain.
"Is he a very dear friend?" I asked.
"Very, very dear."
"Why has he not come to see you before?"
"He has been away; he has known nothing. I have been content to wait for his return. He will come to me now."
The dreamy, far-away look maddened me. It was strange that she did not notice the sharpness of my tone.
"Is that why you are wearing that dress?"
"Yes; it was his favourite. He used to think that I looked better in it than anything."
She was actually blushing now. I looked away quickly, with something like a groan almost escaping me.
"So you have been keeping it for him. You would not let any one else see you in it, even."
Her expression changed swiftly. I had touched a painful chord. How I hated myself for it!
"It was not that," she said in a low voice; "I had not got it. I was very poor, and I had to—to part with it for a time. But I used to lay by a little every week, and yesterday I was able to bring it away. Oh, how thankful I was! All the others have gone, but it would have broken my heart to have parted with this one. He liked it so much."
A great wave of pity rose up in my heart, and swept away every meaner feeling before it. I bent forward with my eyes fixed upon the fire, and all that I could so well imagine seemed to rise up before me in a sort of dream-picture. I saw the stooping figure of that lonely woman, working night and day in a cheerless solitude, starving herself of food and warmth, wearing her fingers to the bone, scraping every farthing together that she might redeem from the pawnshop the gown so precious to her through his preference. I could see her late at night, wearied out and with aching eyes, pushing her work away, and indulging for a few brief moments in one of those day-dreams so precious to her. A faint colour steals into her ashen cheeks, and her eyes are of a sudden wonderfully soft. The thin hands rest peacefully in her lap, and her poor, tremulous heart is once more beating with renewed strength. She is thinking of the time when he will come. She can see him standing there; almost she can feel his strong arms around her wasted form. How eagerly she watches to see whether he will notice his favourite dress; her hair arranged with shaking fingers as he had liked it; and how anxiously she seeks to read his thoughts in his expression! Does he think her so much changed? Will that old fondness survive her hollow cheeks and shrunken face? Is the old love as faithful and strong as ever? Ah, how sweet those dreams! How sad and cold the awakening!
And my awakening, too, came just then; for I felt a light touch on the arm, and, starting up, found Miss Desmond by my side. Her eyes were very bright, and she seemed to be listening for a sound outside.
"Doctor, forgive me for interrupting your daydream," she said nervously; "for I fancied that I heard a cab stop in the street, and you know that I am expecting a visitor. Would you—"
I rose quickly, and turned towards the door. "I beg your pardon, I'm sure, Miss Desmond," I said. "My next case is a very interesting one, and in thinking out some of the symptoms I lost myself for a moment. Once more, a happy Christmas!"
She looked perfectly beautiful as she laughed and nodded to me with the strange new colour in her cheeks and her whole manner and bearing full of a new-born animation. She might have posed for a statue of "hope "—not that strong, calm hope which is but a misnomer for faith, but hope tempered by uncertainty, nervous and fearful through the very greatness of the issue, yet with all a woman's sweet trust in the man she loves, leaning towards the belief that this meeting, to which she was looking forward with so much yearning tenderness, would end as she would wish. So I saw her, and saw her for the last time. When next I looked into her face she was a dead woman. I met no one on the stairs after leaving Miss Desmond; and instead of spending the day as I had planned, I went straight back to my apartments. At one o'clock I had some lunch—or rather some was placed before me, for I had no appetite and scarcely touched anything The afternoon I spent quite alone in my study. It must have been about twenty minutes to five before I was disturbed by a violent ringing of the surgery bell, and almost immediately afterwards my housekeeper knocked at the door.
"A gentleman wishes to see you immediately, sir," she announced.
"Show him in," I directed.
He had evidently followed close behind her, for before she could turn round he had walked into the room. I turned up the lamp, and rose from my chair.
Every minute detail of his appearance comes back to me even now, after so many years, as clearly as though it were but yesterday. His was not a face to be easily forgotten. I suppose it would not strictly have been called a handsome one, but it was, at any rate, both striking and powerful; and his carriage, even in his great haste, was dignified and easy. I listened to hear his errand with the feeling that I was in the presence of no ordinary man, and with a curiosity which I seldom felt in the presence of any of my patients.
"You are Mr. Faggett?" he inquired quickly.
"I have just left a lady whom you have been attending—Miss Desmond. She is ill. Will you come to her?"
The pipe which I had been holding between my fingers slipped to the ground, and I drew a quick breath between my teeth. This, then, was Miss Desmond's visitor, this was the man whom she had been expecting so eagerly; and he had left her ill, he had left her at the very moment when she must have most needed his support, on an errand which any other messenger could have accomplished. I stooped down and turned up the lamp with a fierce, angry swelling at my heart, but when I bent forward to look into his face he stepped quickly back into the shadows with an impatient exclamation. His purpose was manifest—he wished to conceal his features from me as far as possible.
"I ask you again whether you will come to her, Dr. Faggett?" he said abruptly. "I left her in a faint, and the case may be urgent. Kindly postpone your curiosity as to my personal appearance until you have seen your patient."
I raised the lamp high over my head and looked him full in the face. He bore my examination without flinching; and I hurried into my coat and hat with a sigh not unmixed with relief. His was no villain's face—it was strong and proud, and in a certain way impenetrable, but it was a man's face and the face of no ordinary man.
"I will come at once," I answered. "I am ready now."
We went out into the street together. I had expected to find my companion silent and reserved, but he commenced talking at once.
"I learn from Miss Desmond that you have been very good to her. Dr. Faggett," he said slowly. "She has been in sore straits, I fear, and has needed friends."
"I am not aware of any particular goodness on my part," I answered stiffly. "I have only done what Miss Desmond has a right to expect from me—or any other of my patients."
"You have done more; but I fear that you are prejudiced against me, Dr. Faggett. I do not know how much Marian—Miss Desmond—has told you of her history, but—"
"She has told me nothing."
"I do not wonder at it; she is naturally reserved. You knew; at any rate, that she was expecting a visitor to-day?"
"I was that visitor. You may have surmised that?"
"I imagined so; and also, from your errand to me, that your visit was a disappointment to her."
"I fear so," he answered in a low tone; "I fear so."
"Then, at any rate, it is my duty to tell you, sir, that events may make you her murderer," I said pitilessly.
We were passing a gas-lamp, and the momentary view which I had of his face startled me. It was pale, as though with a sudden horror, and great beads of perspiration were standing out upon his forehead; never before or since have I seen such agony upon a human face. The people who thronged the pavement glanced curiously at him, and then at me. To escape their observation I increased my pace a little, and as we threaded our way amongst them I heard him whisper in my ear—
"If you can save her, doctor, your fee shall be a thousand guineas."
"Only you can do that," I answered sharply.
There was no reply. I looked round, and found that he was no longer by my side. Across the road I could see him vanishing in the mist. Without hesitation I pushed onward. I cared nothing for him: I was only anxious to reach my patient.
A few hours before I should have scoffed at the very idea of attaching any importance to what are known as presentiments. Yet from the moment when I came in sight of that grim, smoke-stained tenement, and hurried up the crazy, uncarpeted stairs, I was conscious of a dim foreshadowing of some sort of evil. For a wonder, there was no brawling in the lower rooms, no sound of angry, drunken voices from any of the half-opened doors. Only now and then, on the landings, I heard the heavy breathings of sleeping men and women, lying about like rats upon the floor. I reached the last flight of stairs, and the candle in my hand shook so that the drops fell spluttering upon the ground. Was she alone, I wondered? was there no one to watch by her side and wait for my coming? If she had recovered from her faint, how dreary the time must seem!
I pressed on, and came to a standstill outside her door. Still silence—deep, unendurable silence—and still that vague sense of some evil close at hand.
Fearfully I pushed open the door and stood upon the threshold.
My first sense was one of relief. In the dim twilight I could just catch the outline of a dear, familiar figure leaning back in a chair drawn up to the fireplace. But the fire was a handful of white ashes, and the figure never turned to greet me. The chill of the room struck into my heart, and my voice trembled as I called out to her—
"Miss Desmond, wake up? It is I—Dr. Faggett!"
No answer. The figure in the chair was still and silent. With trembling fingers I raised the candle high over my head, and peered forward to where its pale, sickly glow smote the darkness. Oh, the horror of that moment—the unspeakable horror of it! I felt my knees totter, a mist floating before my eyes, and a deadly sickness creep like a numbing paralysis over all my senses. Yet, through it all, I knew that it was she who reclined in that straight-backed chair, still and cold, with a little spot of blood on the bosom of her dress, and a dagger driven straight into her heart.
She was dead. She must have died in a single moment, for there was no trace of even the slightest spasm in her white, still face. Nay, something of the old softness was still lingering around her tightly compressed mouth, and the half-closed eyes, vacant though they were, had none of the glazed hardness of death. In those moments of anguish I forgot my first duty. I forgot everything except that I had loved this woman; and sinking on my knees, I caught her hands in mine and buried my face in her lap. There I remained, heedless of the flight of time, for hour after hour of the long winter's night.
I arose at last and stood by the little window with tightly clasped hands, acutely conscious of all that happened, the ethical horror of it mingling with my own sense of personal loss. The little chamber was seven storeys high; and away eastwards I could see a faint streak of light, and presently a blood-red sun shining down through the white vaporous mists upon the awakening city. I watched it gradually appear until its first struggling rays smote the dome of St. Paul's and the noises increased in the streets below. Then for the first time utterance came to me, and the pent-up agony of my heart escaped in one long, deep cry—a cry of wrath, of bitter, relentless anger, against the man who had done this thing. And with that cry ended the first chapter of my life.
"It is really quite impossible for any one to be bored at Mauleven Abbey. Lady Mary always has something fresh going."
"Wasn't it a delightful thought? One feels so much more interest in the performance, too, seeing it down here in one's own drawing-room. I'm sure I wanted to go to the Adelaide Hall awfully, but Henry wouldn't let me. He wasn't quite sure that it was proper—such nonsense! Now I feel quite repaid for my disappointment. It really is charming of you, Lady Mary, and I am looking forward to this evening tremendously."
"So am I."
"And I," I added grimly, from my position somewhat in the background.
Lady Mauleven turned towards me with a little laugh.
"Dr. Faggett, I recognize the voice of an unbeliever, do I not? You have no faith in Mademoiselle Astrea's powers? Am I not right?"
"Perfectly, Lady Mary," I answered, bowing, "I have no sympathy for, or belief in, psychology as interpreted by Mademoiselle Astrea and her disciples."
"How do you explain the phenomena which she produces, then?" asked another of the group of ladies.
I shrugged my shoulders indifferently.
"I have been to Maskelyne and Cooke's," I answered; "I saw some wonderful things there, but I could not explain them unless I was let into the secret."
"You think, then, that we have reached the limit of knowledge and control over the natural forces of the world?"
"I do not say that," I answered gravely; "indeed, I should be very sorry to say it. But I do not believe in the Mahatmas and Initiates of Miss Astrea."
"There have been strange things seen. All London is talking of it."
"London is generally talking about something," I replied.
"By the bye, Lady Mary," some one interrupted; "if it is not a rude question, however did you persuade Astrea to come here? I heard that she would never even lecture in private except to Theosophists, and abhorred anything in the shape of a performance."
Lady Mary looked a little perplexed.
"That is so, I believe," she answered. "To tell you the truth, I was as much surprised as any one. Mr. Fitzgerald took me to her home twice, and as I was coming away the last time, I asked her, never imagining that she would accept, to spend Christmas here with us."
"And she accepted?"
"At once. 'I should be very pleased to come,' she said, if you would allow me one evening to speak to your guests—Christmas Eve.' Of course, I said that I should be charmed."
"And she has actually come?"
"She arrived an hour ago. She is having tea in her room, and will not appear until evening. Then she is going to lecture, or give a performance of some sort, in the library."
"She won't come down to dinner, then?"
"No; she begged to be excused. She likes to be quiet always for an hour or two before appearing in public. I wonder when the men will be back? It's a horrid day for shooting."
The conversation drifted away; and, as was natural amongst a little group of women drinking afternoon tea at an English country-house, became incomprehensible to me. It was odd that I, an old bachelor, forty years old, with little taste for gaiety, should find myself spending Christmas at Mauleven Abbey; but Lady Mary had attacked me at a weak moment, and the inducements she offered—four meets with the Quoni in one week and the pick of the stable—were irresistible. A bad day's hunting and a thick, drizzling rain had brought me home before the rest of the men, who had thrown in their lot with the shooting-party, and accounted for my presence at so feminine a gathering.
Presently there was a tramping in the hall and the sound of men's voices. The door was thrown open, and the Earl of Mauleven and the remainder of his guests entered. It chanced that, though I had known Lady Mary for several years, I had never met her husband, and I was looking forward to doing so with some curiosity; for Lord Mauleven was a famous man both in the House of Lords and in the literary world. So I rose and scanned his face with some interest as he advanced towards me with outstretched hand and courteous smile.
Twenty years had not dulled my memory a jot, and in Lord Mauleven I saw at once the man whom the shrewdest detectives in England had sought for in vain. Iron grey had mingled with the coal black hair, and a deep furrow was engraven across his forehead. Yet there was the same fine dignity of carriage and perfection of features. It was the face of a scholar and an artist. As a physiognomist, I should certainly have ranked it the face of a man of high principles and noble birth. Yet I knew better. I alone knew that Geoffrey, Earl of Mauleven, was the man whom a coroner's jury had found guilty of the murder of Marian Desmond well-nigh twenty years ago.
If he recognized me, and I believe that he did, his nerve was magnificent. He affected not to notice the withdrawal of my hand, and welcomed rue to Mauleven Abbey in a few well-chosen and graceful sentences. Then he passed on to speak to some one else, and the meeting was over.
I stood back in the shadows of the room like a man stunned, striving to realize this thing. It had come so suddenly and so unexpectedly. Lord Mauleven, scholar, author, and diplomatist, was the murderer of Marian Desmond. It was inconceivable, and yet it was true, I told myself fiercely. He should have no mercy from me. As he had sinned, so should he pay the penalty. Neither rank nor fame should save him from my vengeance which was, indeed, only a simple act of justice.
I looked at him—tall, debonair, and courtly, moving about with all the distinction of his fine presence amongst the little scattered group of his guests; but my heart knew no pity. At that moment memories of the only woman whom I had ever cared for were rising up within me, strong and undimmed by time. Across that weary gulf of years I seemed to see once more her sweet, worn face, with all its patient hope and longing, so ill rewarded. The luxurious chamber, with all its wealth and colouring, its dainty lounges and cosy recesses, seemed to contract into a barely-furnished attic, and the roaring fire which burned brightly upon the fine open hearth, piled up with pine-logs, into a handful of white ashes. And when the dream-pictures floated before my vacant eyes had passed away, they left me full of a living anger. I would leave the Abbey this very hour and lay my information before the authorities of Scotland Yard. And with this intention I rose and, ostensibly to dress for dinner, left the room and mounted the broad oak staircase.
My apartment was the last in the long row in the main gallery. I had reached it, and was on the point of entering, when I heard the trailing of a woman's draperies close beside me, and almost immediately felt a touch upon my arm, and heard my name distinctly pronounced.
I turned round, and for the moment fancied myself the victim of some transient hallucination. It seemed, indeed, as though the two figures who had dwelt so long in that dim shadow-land of memory, but glided afresh into my life on this dark winter's afternoon, for the woman who had spoken my name and who stood by my side was surely looking up at me with Marian's eyes and had spoken with Marian's voice. Yet when I looked again I found it was not so. She was slighter and much smaller than Marian had been, and her complexion was altogether different. She had the appearance of a woman who had lived in some far southern land. Her skin was almost olive-hued, and her dark, glowing eyes, shining up at me from amidst the hair which waved all around her small oval face, had an odd, penetrating force. She was a curious figure to encounter at any time, with her wonderful eyes and quaint bizarre beauty; and the suddenness of her approach and that strange resemblance to the dead, coming at a time when my whole being was shaken with memories of the past, seemed to endow her personality with a suggestion of the supernatural. If I showed anything of this in my face, she took no notice of it.
"Dr. Faggett, it is I—Marian Desmond's sister. You were her friend, and you were good to her. How is it that I find you here, a guest beneath her murderer's roof?"
"I saw his face for the first time ten minutes ago," I answered slowly. "I am leaving the Abbey at once. I go to bring him to book."
She held up her hand. A gleam of the early moonlight stole through the mullioned window and fell upon her face. It no longer resembled her sister's. The features were set, and cold, and hard, the eyes were blazing with passion.
"Stay! His hour has already come, and your hand need not strike. Think not that you alone have thirsted for vengeance against this man. In the mountains of India I saw the deed done, and I heard my sister's death-cry ring over land and ocean in my ears. The God of my belief raised the veil and I saw. I bowed my head and I was silent. I sought counsel of those who knew, and I held my peace. The reward came slowly, but it has come. Nirvana, the sweetest goal of life, is before my eyes. The blessed Initiates of the East have called me sister. Powers and forces hidden and unknown to you bend themselves to my will. Stay this night and see the end. It is my bidding.
"I am Astrea, and I command. Farewell!"
She seemed to vanish from my eyes without bodily movement. Or might it not have been that the thick clouds which had floated across the moon had filled the gallery with sudden darkness? I closed the door of my room and told myself that I had spoken with a mad woman. But I did her bidding—I waited.
At nine o'clock in the evening the curtain rose on this last scene in the drama of life. The great library of Mauleven Abbey was thronged with such a company as its walls had never before enclosed, and the air was full of the rustling of gowns and suppressed whispering. Every one was full of curiosity to hear what this woman, whose name had suddenly become famous, would have to say about the unknown science. Would she have new wonders to reveal—perhaps even miracles to perform? There was an uncertainty about it all which was perfectly delightful. It seemed as though anything might happen in that great chamber, with its quaint, dark recesses, where no light fell and where the very air had a bookish, musty flavour suggestive of a mystery and necromancy. It was quite a charming idea of Lady Mauleven's every one declared; and her Ladyship, leaning back in an olive-green fauteuil, close to the front, felt sincerely grateful to Astrea for her unaccountable whim.
I had chosen a seat, or rather a standing-place, with my back to the wall, directly opposite Lord Mauleven. Our eyes had met only once, but it was sufficient. I knew that he had recognized me, and I knew, too, that he had some idea of the danger before him.
There was a little murmur and then an intense quiet amongst the audience. Some heavy curtains at the other end of the apartment had been thrown back, and Astrea stepped slowly forward. I can see her now as she stood there, pale and still, with her great luminous eyes wandering far over the heads of the expectant audience, and her lips moving slowly, as though repeating some prayer or lesson to herself. A deep, awesome hush fell upon the crowd of fashionably dressed men and women. Lord Mauleven alone appeared unmoved and careless. He had given up his place to a late arrival, and was leaning against a pillar with his face half in the shadow. I only could read beneath that faint, supercilious smile which was hovering round his fine mouth.
Astrea slowly dropped her eyes and spoke. The first words which fell from her riveted the attention of her listeners. Some hidden electricity seemed to lurk in the timbre of her tone. Every one, even those who had come prepared to treat the affair as a joke, or some light form of entertainment, were galvanized into rapt and breathless attention.
"Some one has said that I am going to lecture upon theosophy," she commenced dreamily. "That is not so—theosophy is not to be taught by code and rule. Those who seek light and truth should seek it in solitude and mental isolation. The greatest of our teachers can only supply the raw material. Each must pursue for himself the dark and narrow path which leads alone to perfect understanding, to perfect light, and to the perfect knowledge of all those hidden laws and forces which mock and elude the uninitiated. To-night I am breaking the first principles laid down by those who have become the high-priests of our order. I am going to show you all a miracle. I am going to speak with one who has been for a long while dead. You shall hear her voice; you shall hear of her life; she shall speak to you of the mariner of her death. And this I do for a purpose of my own, and with no desire to make converts of any of you.
"Far away in my eastern home, amongst the mountains, I have heard her faint, sweet whisperings in my ear at the break of the day. In the gloom of twilight I have seen her dim, reproachful eyes; and in the white mists of the midnight hour, upon the hills, I have seen her sweep slowly by, sad and mournful. Yet I have not called her to me. I have waited for this; and now the thing has come. Marian! Marian! come, beloved sister! It is Astrea who calls you!"
She had raised her hands with a slow, sweeping grace, and stood for a moment perfectly motionless. Then, breaking a silence of death, sweet and low as the music of an aeolian harp stirred by the faintest of summer breezes, the sound of a woman's answering voice floated upon the air—
"I am with thee, Astrea; speak."
Astrea raised her hands and answered—
"I would talk with thee for one brief moment only, of the past—of the sad days of your life upon earth. Look back with me upon our home. You have not forgotten?"
The wonderful music of that answering voice again filled the room.
"I forget nothing, Astrea. I see our fair country home and our dear parents. I see the hedges white with hawthorn blossom, the common starred with poppies and corn-flowers, and great yellow marigolds down in the marshes, and the sloping fields golden with ripe corn, and bending like waves of the sea before the summer wind. I have found peace and rest, my sister; but earth, too, is a fair place!"
"Fair for you, Marian, till a man's treachery made it black and foul. Do you remember the night when, full of joy and love, you whispered out your secret to me and we shed tears of happiness together? Do you remember the day when, blithe and trustful, you followed your lover to London? Do you remember the bitter hour of awakening when the light died out of your life, the weary waiting, the heart-sickness, the bowed grey heads of our father and mother, hastened in their passage to the grave?"
"Too well—too well," sobbed out the answering voice. "Astrea, forbear. Question me no more."
A strange light burned in Astrea's dark eyes. Her hands were raised high above her head, and her form seemed dilated and quivering with passion.
"Marian, the man whose selfishness wrecked your life and broke our parents' hearts lives. He is great, and honoured, and respected. Say but the word and I will crush him. The world for which he lives shall look upon his buried past; my hand shall raise the veil, my finger shall point at his shame, my voice, my testimony, shall denounce him. Think of the hour when you found yourself deserted, and with your life ruined, struggling against starvation in a garret, whilst he wandered off in ease and luxury, a willing exile. You know well that he never sought to find you after that night when you left him in horror and shame. Think of that day when at last he was forced to visit you. Remember his greeting, his dismay at your just demand; remember, Marian, remember his refusal! I will not ask you how you died, by his hand or yours; but Heaven knows that he was your murderer. Heaven's curses lighten upon him! I thirst for vengeance, my sister. Say that one word and open my lips."
There was no movement, no voice heard. Every one sat waiting, half-dazed, stricken dumb by the passion of Astrea's prayer, and dimly fearing some terrible dénouement. The moonlight fell upon their white upturned faces, and showed more than one strong man quivering with excitement. The entertainment had grown wonderfully realistic; where would it end?
Suddenly the intense stillness was broken by the chiming of the great Abbey clock. It was midnight. Some one who stood near one of the windows threw it open, and with the rush of frosty air came the sudden glad pealing of bells from the village church. It was Christmas morn. And, mingling with the sound, yet rising clear and sweet above it, came once more the music of that spirit voice—
"Astrea, beloved sister, in the old days we prayed together, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.' Far away, over the valleys and the hills, I seem to hear those words stealing up to me in the music of the Christmas bells. I died by my own hand, and the sin was my own. For the rest, I charge thee, Astrea, forgive—forgive."
A deep sob escaped from Lord Mauleven's lips; but in that moment of intense suspense no one, save myself, had noticed it. Astrea turned slowly round and disappeared. The lights were turned up, and the spell of silence was broken. The curtain had fallen, the play was over.
If I commence my story, or rather my recital, with any particularities as to my personality and present condition, the chances are that I shall alienate in no small degree, perhaps altogether, the attention and interest which my narrative might otherwise gain. And yet, after very careful deliberation, I have decided to confess my secret in these few opening lines. I am a madman. Even while I write I am watched by a keen-eyed attendant (mine is a private asylum, and we don't call them warders). To all intents and purposes I am a prisoner. Of the world outside this—shall we say retreat?—I know nothing, nor shall I ever enter it again. Empires may rise and fall, all Europe might blaze from Madrid to Moscow with fierce war and bloodshed, kingdoms might become republics, and republics might seek again the yoke of monarchy—to me it would all be one. Outside these walls I shall never step. I have wit enough to conceal my partial recovery, for I know very well that this refuge is all that stands between me and the murderer's dock.
The winter of 19— I was compelled through ill-health to spend abroad. Perhaps it would be as well to here remark that my malady was one which affected in no degree my nervous system or my mental powers. It was, in fact, nothing but a slight weakness of the lungs, which had caused my medical attendant to earnestly recommend my spending the winter months in some warmer climate; and as I was my own master and had no ties to keep me in England, and as, moreover, the idea of escaping from the chilly humours and dreary fogs of our own country to bask under the warm southern sun and the blue sky of the Riviera was in itself no means displeasing to me, I took his advice.
I was staying at a small old-fashioned little town known to tourists, and some distance out of the beaten track of the shoals of health-seeking Europeans and sight-seeing Americans, who made this region their happy hunting-ground. The hotel was no more than an inn, but the limetree-bordered promenade outside was seldom pressed by the foot of a stranger. There was in the place itself, its architecture, or its surroundings, little that was picturesque or attractive. But, nevertheless, it pleased me, and I had prolonged my stay for a week or two, and was still without any settled idea of going. Strange to say, it was the very dullness of the place which attracted and kept me there. It suited the mood which I happened to be in.
One evening after my solitary dinner—table d'hôte there was none—I had strolled, as usual, with a cigar in my mouth, down the promenade. I had had but little exercise during the day, or a fit of laziness had been upon me, and the weather had been anything but tempting, and so it happened that when I reached the end of the narrow sanded walk I felt reluctant to turn back. The night was a pleasant one for walking, and seemed all the pleasanter after the hot winds and blazing sun which had kept me lounging about under cover all day. I hesitated only for a moment, leaning over the low swing gate at the extremity of the promenade. Then, passing through it, I stepped out on to the broad high-road, and walked steadily ahead.
In about a quarter of an hour I reached four cross-roads. The road to the left, the road straight on, and the road behind me I knew well. The road to the right I had never taken, perhaps because it commenced with a remarkably stiff ascent and appeared to lead nowhere, for it was little more than a grass-grown cattle-track. But looking along it to-night a sensation of which I had certainly never before been conscious seized swiftly hold of me. I was filled with a sudden strong curiosity to explore the ill-kept, neglected by-road.
It was a curiosity which increased with every step I took, and became gradually coupled with a vague, incomprehensible premonition. What manner of a prospect I expected to behold from the top of the hill which I was rapidly ascending I cannot tell, but I had a distinct and firm conviction that something out of the common was about to happen to me.
By degrees the road along which I was walking presented more and more the appearance of a mere sheep-track, until at last the hedges on either side terminated, the road itself degenerated into a footpath, and I found myself ascending a high turf-covered hill. I was the more surprised because in my wanderings around the district I had never noticed anything of the nature of an eminence in this direction. However, I kept steadily on, till at last I reached the summit, and, pausing to take breath, looked around me in a startled curiosity which was not without a considerable amount of awe.
Stranger and stranger it all seemed to me. Close by my side, on the highest point of the hill, was a round tower built of rough grey stone, which I was quite certain that I had never seen before. Below me and all around, the country, clearly visible in the moonlight, was of a character totally unlike any which my many walks in the vicinity had made familiar to me. Instead of the long vineyard-covered slopes and groves of olive-trees, was a thoroughly English deer-park studded with giant oaks and dark patches of fir trees, and stretching away beyond a purely pastoral country with deep yellow cornfields and rich meadows, in many of which were dotted about the dark shapes of reclining cattle. On my left hand yawned a cleft-like chasm, overhung at the brink with thick bracken and drooping bushes—evidently a disused slate quarry, for a broken shaft lay rotting on the ground, and all around were thick layers of broken-up slate.
I passed my hand across my eyes, half wondering whether I had not been walking in my sleep; and then as I opened them again I started back with a cry of horror, which rang out sharply into the clear night air, only to die away in a sort of tremor from my white trembling lips. Face to face with me stood, or rather crouched, a man, a tall dark man, with white, scared face and large, wildly bright eyes riveted on mine. It seemed as though he had turned round suddenly from peering down into the black depths of the chasm, and was horror-struck to see me.
Despite the cold night breeze, the perspiration streamed down from my hot, clammy forehead. I strove to speak; but I could not, like unwilling actors, in a silent tableau, we stood face to face, speechless, motionless, fascinated. No sound broke the deep stillness of the summer night; no words could I force from my ashen lips after that first hoarse cry.
Suddenly there came faintly to my ears the sound of a low, moaning cry, and almost simultaneously I saw a tuft of the bracken which overhung the chasm shaken violently. A deeper chill ran through me; it seemed as though the blood in my veins was turned to ice, and I stood motionless, my feet frozen to the ground with fear. Slowly I distinguished something white moving amongst the turf of ferns. At first it seemed shapeless, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness it gradually resolved itself into a pair of white hands clutching desperately at the roots of the ferns, as though the person to whom they belonged was striving frantically to draw himself up from beneath. Almost he seemed about to succeed, for, as I leaned over towards the spot with spell-bound gaze, a white, desperate face, colourless with fear, save where smeared with blood from a wound in the temple, slowly appeared above the brink of the chasm, and I could tell from the convulsive swaying of the shoulders that the struggling man was making frantic attempts to obtain a foothold.
The horrible sight seemed to loosen my joints, which had become stiff with fear, and with a cry of encouragement I sprang forward to his aid. But the crowning horror of the whole scene was to come. The man whom I had first seen turned suddenly round, and, raising a gun which lay flat upon the ground beside him, brandished it high over his head, and brought it down with a sickening thud upon the struggling fingers. A wild shriek of despair burst from the lips of his victim as his hands relaxed their hold upon the bracken, and I reached the edge of the chasm only in time to see him stiff and rigid in mid-air, his arms stretched wildly up to the starlit sky, in the very act of falling backwards, to see him and to recognize in his ghastly countenance the face of the man who had been my close companion for years, my sworn college chum, and the only man whom I had ever cared to call a friend—Philip Hardingstone, Squire of Little Hampton.
Wild impulses, mad thoughts, rushed like lightning through my surging brain. I would have leaped after him into the black chasm. I would have struck down the murderer of my friend, and, with my fingers clutching his throat, have wrought out a speedy vengeance. I would have shrieked out my horror to the silent night, but I was powerless. Again some strange metamorphosis crept subtly and swiftly over me. Not one of these things could I do. My feet seemed suddenly sinking through the yielding ground; the scene around me closed in, growing dimmer and dimmer, until at last everything—my senses, my instincts, my very consciousness of existence—was merged in an apathetic chaos. What immediately followed is hard for me to say. There was no period of absolute blank unconsciousness, but my material surroundings seemed suddenly to change from chaotic indistinctness to a scene which I knew quite well. I found myself, without any sense of motion or having moved, leaning against a gate looking over a sloping vineyard only a few yards away from the cross-roads. Thunderstruck and bewildered, I gazed wildly about me for a few moments. Then turning round, I hurried along the grass-grown track. In vain; I came to no hill, and the path beneath my feet grew into a broad, white highroad, winding far away into a level stretch of rolling plains. This way and that, backward and forward, I ran like a man demented. Far away in the east the sun was slowly bursting through a mass of orange-streaked clouds, scattering a purple and golden glory all over the azure sky. Morning came, noon, and afternoon; then my wearied limbs gave way, and I sank down on the roadside and prayed that the unconsciousness that was already stealing over me, numbing my frenzied brain and throbbing senses, might come soon. It came as I lay there, blotting out the hideous scene which all through the day had been dancing before my eyes, and the memory of the ghastly, diabolical face of Philip Hardingstone's murderer. With a sigh of relief, I turned on my side and fainted.
Some peasants going home from their day's toil in the vineyards stumbled upon me, and finding my address on an envelope in my pocket, carried me down to the hotel. Towards afternoon on the next day I recovered consciousness, and with it came flooding in upon my memory the fearful scene which I had witnessed. In spite of the doctor's peremptory orders, I insisted upon sitting up in bed and writing out with trembling fingers a telegram to Philip Hardingstone, imploring him to let me know by return that he was well. Until the reply came I could do nothing, but lay tossing restlessly about, on the verge of a fever. Towards evening an orange-coloured envelope was brought to my bedside, and I tore it hastily open.
"From John Elwick, butler at Little Hampton Hall, to Reginald Morton, Hotel de Paris.—Your telegram received. Please come to England at once, Mr. Hardingstone was killed this morning falling down the slate quarry on Old John Hill."
For five weeks I lay ill of a brain fever, and even when its acute stage had passed, and I was able to move about a little, my doctor watched me anxiously, and seemed far from satisfied with my state. I myself knew that a change had come upon me. My memory seemed partially gone; I was subject to frequent fits of delirious excitement, and to corresponding periods of intense depression. When at last I flatly refused to stay where I was any longer, and left for England Dr. F—— insisted upon my engaging a servant of his own recommendation to travel with me. And I knew why: I felt that I was going mad.
Immediately on my arrival in London I telegraphed to John Elwick to come up from Little Hampton to my hotel. The next morning he came.
From him I heard the manner in which his master was supposed to have met his death. It seemed that he had left home with his gun and a couple of dogs, and had sent down to the keeper's lodge, for Wilson, the underkeeper, to meet him with some beaters and a favourite spaniel of his on Old John Hill. When they arrived there they found no signs of their master. They waited for an hour, and then sent down to the house. The reply came back that Mr. Hardingstone had left at the time appointed, and had not returned. They waited for another hour, and then one of the keepers, strolling about, noticed the torn bracken and tumbled earth at the side of the quarry. Ropes were sent for, and a search was instantly commenced. Late at night the body was found, fearfully mangled and crushed. The conclusion instantly arrived at by every one was that he had made a false step and fallen over the dangerously exposed edge by accident.
I listened to the recital in silence. When Elwick had concluded, and stood with his head turned suspiciously away from me, I asked a question:
"Who succeeded to the estates, Elwick?"
"Mr. Esholt, sir, his nephew," answered Elwick somewhat huskily.
"Mr. Esholt! Tell me everything that you know about him," I demanded.
Elwick shook his head slowly.
"That won't be much, sir, and nothing very good. They do say that he has been a terrible scamp. He's only been to the Hall twice, and each time it was to borrow money. I remember last time he came I heard the master say to him, just before he went, that it would be of no use his coming again, for he would never give him another penny."
"Where was Mr. Esholt when this happened?" I asked.
"In Chicago, sir; leastways, so he said," Elwick answered doubtfully. "He turned up about a fortnight ago in London and said that he had come straight from there."
"Can you describe him?" I asked, and waited for the answer with an impatience which I utterly failed to conceal.
Elwick did so. He was tall and sallow, with black eyes and hair. Then I knew this was the man who had murdered my friend.
"It's almost a wonder, sir, as you haven't heard nothing of him, seeing as Miss Clara—" hesitated suddenly and looked doubtful.
"Do you mean my sister, Elwick?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, sir; Miss Clara and her aunt, Lady Alice, sir; they're often at the Hall, and they do say, sir, begging your pardon, as how we shall soon be having a mistress at the old place."
I arose from my seat dazed and trembling, and hurried from the room. In my other apartment was a little pile of letters which I had not as yet looked at. Hastily selecting those from my aunt and my sister, I tore them open and scanned them through.
My vague fears turned swiftly into a distinct sense of horror. From first to last they were full of praises of my old friend's nephew, who was quite a dose neighbour of theirs; and my aunt's letters, which I looked at first, were full of hints as to the cause of his constant visits and attentions to my sister Clara. I threw them down and opened Clara's letters. They were more explicit still. Mr. Esholt had asked her to become his wife. Would I come down and meet him? There was another letter in the pile, the handwriting of which was strange to me. I tore it open. It was signed George Esholt, and contained a formal offer for my sister's hand.
Again there came that terrible tightening of the brain, that hideous vision before my eyes, and a monotonous buzzing in my ears. I knew that this was madness, and I fell on my knees and prayed that it might leave me, if only for a little while My prayer was granted. I fell asleep and awoke weak and full of strange thoughts and sensations but with my purpose still clear before me.
By the mid-day train I travelled down to Little Hampton, and, hiring a fly at the station, drove at once to the Hall. Mr. Esholt was in the park with some ladies, I was told. Would I await his return, or should they send in search for him? I replied that I would go and try to find him myself. And with that purpose I crossed the terraced lawns, and, dismissing the man who would have been my guide, I strode away across the smooth, velvety turf.
Far away in the distance, amongst the gray, crumbling walls of some ivy-covered ruins, I saw light dresses flitting about, and towards these I directed my footsteps. I reached them unobserved, and, crouching down behind the remnant of a pillar, peered into the enclosure where the little group were standing talking.
I saw what I had expected to see: the man whose face had haunted me without ceasing since that terrible night, my aunt, and my sister. They were speaking with raised voices, and I listened.
"Mr. Esholt, you positively shall not refuse to take me there again. I will go, sir. If you won't take me, I shall go alone."
I recognized Clara's imperious voice, and I knew at once that she would have her way. But he did not yield all at once. I saw his pale face grow paler, and he seemed to be keeping back a shudder only with a great effort.
"Clara," he said, "can you wonder that I hate the place? Don't ask me to take you there, please."
There was a brief silence, and I leaned my burning forehead against the stone wall, and through the chinks I could see that my sister was standing a little apart, with an angry frown upon her fair face. Then he approached her slowly. There was a short whispered conversation, and finally she left his side with an air of satisfied triumph.
"Auntie, we are going. Will you come?"
Aunt Alice shook her head and leaned back in her impromptu seat—the fallen, moss-covered trunk of a giant tree.
"No, I'll wait for you. My hill-climbing days are over."
Then I saw them leave her, hand-in-hand, and at a safe distance I followed, keeping just inside a long plantation of fir trees during the first part of the ascent, and afterwards bending low down amongst the tall bracken, ready to disappear altogether should they look round. Before me lay the high grass-covered hill, the round gray tower, and the quarry, just as I had seen them all on that horrible night. At every step I took, every time my eyes fell upon him bending over my sister with all a lover's tenderness, the weight upon my brain seemed to grow heavier. Earth and sky seemed dancing around me in fantastic shapes, and the dark branches of the pine trees stooped down and whispered to me, murder, murder, murder! A band of iron seemed to be tightening itself around my forehead, but my feet touched the grass and met with no more resistance than if I had been walking upon air. All continuity of thought and memory seemed to be breaking up within me, and I felt a strange, wild craving to shout, to run and leap, to burst out into peals of laughter. But still I kept my eyes on the ascending pair in front of me and stealthily followed them. They reached the top almost at the same moment as I also gained it by a more devious track and concealed myself behind a mass of rock. They moved to the side of the chasm, she full of awed curiosity, he pale and shrinking. Then up from my hiding-place I leaped, and stood before them, wild and dishevelled, with my burning eyes fixed upon his ghastly face, pointing, pointing with shaking hand into the abyss below.
"Murderer, murderer!" I shrieked, and the wild west wind caught up my cry and carried it down into the valley and bore it against the rock-strewn hills opposite, till the very air seemed ringing with echoes of that one word. He shrunk back from me in an agony of dumb-stricken fear, and leaned trembling against the tower. I followed him, caught him by the throat, and bore him struggling to the chasm. He snatched at a tuft of bracken; I tore it up by the roots and flung it down into the black water below. He dug his fingers into the mould. I stamped upon them until he relaxed his hold, and then, seizing him by the waist, I pushed him back, back, back, to the very edge of the chasm, and hurled him backwards. In mid-air, as his struggling feet left the ground, he shrieked out for mercy. I laughed back at him, and, leaning over the side, watched his quivering body fall until it disappeared in the black waters below—watched it, laughing all the time with the fierce, delirious joy of madness, and it seemed to me that the rocks and the trees, and the very clouds were laughing with me. Everything seemed to me laughing, except the white, unconscious form of my sister, who lay fainting on the grass. Mad, mad, mad! Yes, I'm mad enough at times. I was a raving lunatic when they tried me for murder, and my trial was a farce, for before it was over they brought me here to this asylum. Sometimes my reason returns to me for a brief while. I am sane now, but it will not be for long. Even now it is coming; the wild visions before my eyes, the fiery weight upon my brain. They all know it here; my keeper knows the signs and he is coming. Ah! they have taken my paper away from me, and now my pen. No matter, I have finished.
It was just becoming a debatable question with Francis Hadley, Marquis of Hetherdean, whether, after all, life was worth living. In his present mood, if he had been called upon to give a definite decision with regard to this problem, he would probably have decided in the negative, although if he had been compelled to give also his reasons for such a decision, he would certainly have been at a loss to do so. Doubtless he would have muttered something about London being so beastly slow about this time of the year, and indulged in a mild oath at the post which had sent him up from Melton. But as a matter of fact it was neither the loss of his hunting nor his non-interest in town life which was at the bottom of his lordship's discontent with things in general. They might perhaps have had something to do with it, for he was a young man of no very pronounced tastes, who was accustomed to rely for his diversions almost entirely upon the usual season's pursuits, and the sudden stoppage of his favourite sport was certainly annoying. He had had quite enough tramping over wet moors in the drizzling rain, with a gun under his arm which he was seldom called upon to use, and the shortest tempered of Scotch keepers lagging wearily behind; nor could he find anything in town life to compensate him for his ejection from Melton, for he had not the slightest taste for dissipation in any form, and most of his friends had already shut up their town houses, and gone down into the country for Christmas. But, after all, these were not the chief reasons for his depressed state, although they were the only reasons which he would have cared to acknowledge. The fact of it was, that he was, or fancied that he was—which is very much the same thing—in love. There was nothing at all romantic about it. The young lady who had first attracted his notice, then his attention, and finally his heart (he was by no means the sort of young man to fall in love off-hand), was one of his own set, with whom an alliance would have been most proper and desirable. But there was one trifling difficulty in the way. Incredible though it may seem, Lord Hadley had an uneasy but distinct consciousness that the young lady in question, although she did not positively discourage his advances, seemed scarcely to appreciate them at their full value. He could not understand it at all. He had been so angled for and spoilt during the five years which had elapsed since he had attained his majority, that there was certainly some excuse for his perplexity. He was young, moderately good-looking, moderately rich. What more could she want! And yet on two separate occasions, when he had been on the very brink of a proposal, she had actually avoided it.
Now in his perplexity Lord Hadley had done a very unwise thing. He had been unwilling to abandon the idea of making Flora Saville Countess of Hetherdean, but on the other hand he could not bring himself to face the possibilities of a rejection, and so he had laid the matter before her mother, Mrs. Saville, and there, at any rate, his suit had not been coldly received. Mrs. Saville had instantly declared herself his warm ally, and the letter which he was studying over his post matutinal cigar with so much interest was in her dear, bold handwriting. It ran thus:—
"'BATH HOTEL,' BOURNEMOUTH,
"December 21, 18—
"MY DEAR LORD HADLEY (he had winced a little more than once at the 'My dear.' It seemed so very mother-in-lawish)—we are leaving here this afternoon for Bradgate Park, and I am writing you a few lines to remind you of your promise to spend Christmas there. We are all very well, and you will be glad to hear (underlined) that dear Flora's cold has quite disappeared. I think that I may venture to give you a little good news with regard to—a certain matter. I have sometimes feared that the dear child—very silly of her—thought a little too much of Mr. Reid, who certainly has been very attentive to her. Well, we have just received a letter from him regretting that some unforeseen circumstance will prevent his spending Christmas with us. I can see that Flora is very much annoyed at this, and I really am afraid that there was some kind of secret understanding between them which, had they met at Christmas, might have led to most regrettable results. As it is, all will be well, I think, for she is evidently much puzzled about Mr. Reid putting off his visit, and asked me this morning whether I was certain that you were coming to us. You will, I am sure, let nothing prevent your paying us this visit, as the opportunity is not one to be lost if you are still in the same mind as when we last met. I shall confidently expect you then on the 24th, at Bradgate Park, and will send to meet the 3.30 from St. Pancras.
"With kindest regards, believe me, my dear Lord Hadley,
"Yours very sincerely,
Lord Hadley, having carefully studied this epistle for nearly a quarter of an hour, consigned it at last to the pocket of his dressing-gown, and pulled away savagely at his cigar. He had his own reasons for believing that Neil Reid, whom he had himself introduced to the Savilles, and who, being one of his closest friends, was a somewhat formidable rival, and he scarcely felt inclined to share Mrs. Saville's sanguine views as to his chances with her daughter. Reid was certainly poor, but then his family and connexions were unexceptional, and he was undeniably clever in a quasi-literary sort of way. Besides, money would not be so much an object, for Flora was herself an heiress, and, being an only child and spoilt, would certainly have her own way. Altogether, things looked very bad indeed, and dim ideas of the Rocky mountains and a prolonged Eastern tour were floating in Lord Hadley's mind as he lounged in his easy chair with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, and stared fixedly into the bright fire.
There was a knock at the door, and the servant announced, "Mr. Neil Reid."
Lord Hadley started to his feet with a muttered exclamation, which was certainly not a blessing upon the gentleman in question, and then turned round to receive his visitor.
"How are you, Reid? Haven't seen you for an age. Just tilt those papers on the floor, will you, and take a seat. Breakfast or a weed?"
Mr. Neil Reid, a tall, very good-looking young man, accepted a cigar, and seated himself in a low chair opposite his host. "Rattling good smokes," he remarked appreciatively. "Boonter's?
"No. Got 'em at old Perry's in Bond Street. Thought you were in Paris, writing those letters for the Observer. When did you come across?"
"Last Wednesday; found I could write them just as well from London, and besides, it's an infernal nuisance, but I've got to turn up at home at Christmas. Can't think what's possessed the governor, and he simply insists upon my being there to join in the festivities. I hate all that tomfoolery, but go I must. Can't afford to offend the old boy."
Mrs. Saville's information was correct then. Lord Hadley felt a little better.
"Those sort of Christmas rejoicings are sometimes very good fun," he remarked consolingly. "I rather like an old-fash—"
"Then I tell you what, old man," interrupted the other eagerly. "You come down with me. My people will be delighted to see you, and we can find something to do. They always leave a cover or two till Christmas, and—"
"Thanks awfully, but I've promised to spend Christmas with the Savilles, at the place they've taken in Leicestershire. Can't get out of it now."
Mr. Neil Reid's face fell considerably, and he bit his moustache.
"I'm sorry to hear it," he said gloomily. "Look here, Hadley," he went on, "we're old friends, and you won't mind my speaking out, I'm sure. I have an idea we're running against one another in this matter. I don't know whether you're in earnest, but I tell you frankly—I am. Let's have it out. Are we rivals?"
"Presuming that you refer to Miss Saville," Lord Hadley said a little stiffly, "we are. I intend to ask her to be my wife."
There was a dead silence for several minutes, which Mr. Neil Reid was the first to break.
"Very well then, Hadley, let it be a fair fight between us. There's just one favour I should like to ask you. Miss Saville will doubtless be a little annoyed with me for throwing them over this Christmas, though, hang it all, I can't help it. You won't take advantage of that, will you? I mean to say, you'll not steal a march on me by proposing until I've seen her and explained matters. That's only fair."
Lord Hadley leaned back in his chair and laughed silently.
"Come, come, Reid, isn't that going a little too far? To make use of a very hackneyed quotation, all's fair in love and war,' you know. Between ourselves, you've exactly indicated what I propose doing."
Neil Reid rose to his feet with an angry exclamation, and caught up his hat as if about to go, but evidently thought better of it, and resumed his seat.
"It's not the slightest use quarrelling about this little matter, Reid," his lordship remarked affably. "Come, let's drop it now; it's a fair field and let the best man win. Now let's talk of something else. What are you going to do to-day? Can't we do something together? I never was so miserably bored in all my life."
Mr. Neil Reid, who had his own reasons for not wishing to quarrel with his rival, took out a small memorandum book and leisurely consulted it.
"H'm! seems I'm pretty well full up," he remarked thoughtfully. "I've promised to try and get in Trafalgar Square, this morning, and report for the Observer. Then, if I can get away in time, I ought to lunch at Belton House, and take my cousins to a matinée somewhere Kensington way, and I'm going to dine with the Caringtons, and shall look in at Mrs. Pychley-Carr's dance, of course."
Lord Hadley threw the end of his cigar into the air and looked vicious.
"Hope you'll enjoy yourself! For my part I hate matinées, especially musical ones, like poison, and I can't endure dancing attendance on a lot of women like a tame puppy dog; no offence to you, Reid. The Caringtons haven't asked me to dine, and if they had, I shouldn't go. I hate their slow, solemn dinners! Lord's is shut up; so's Hurlingham. I'm sick of the sight of Tattersall's, and I haven't got any pretty cousins to go and lunch with. What on earth is there for a man to do?"
"Come with me to Trafalgar Square, and see these socialists," Mr. Reid answered promptly. "That'll be a novelty for you, at any rate."
Lord Hadley's thin lip curled, and his face assumed an expression of most patrician contempt.
"Go amongst that lot of beer-swilling, ranting lunatics! Not I. If I went, I should tell them what I thought of their folly."
"That's a little more than even you dare do," remarked Mr. Neil Reid quietly.
These words had precisely the effect which the speaker had intended them to have. Lord Hadley looked up quickly with a frowning face.
"Dare! I like that! Look here, Reid, if you'll engage to procure me the opportunity—you're in with all these socialist cads, aren't you?—I'll bet you a hundred pounds that I do make a speech! There!"
"Done! I'll find you the opportunity this very morning. You must take the risk of it on your own shoulders, though. I warn you that these fellows, contemptible though you may think them, won't stand any trifling with."
"Very well, I'm not afraid of them. They won't know who I am. Oblige me by touching the bell, will you, Reid? Thanks."
His lordship's own man answered the summons.
"Burditt, have you got any very old clothes?" his master inquired gravely.
Burditt belonged to that class of highly-trained servants to whom surprise and suchlike emotions are strangers.
"I don't know that I have, my lord," he replied, after a moment's deliberation. "Not very old."
"I didn't suppose you had. Now listen to me. I want you to take a hansom at once, and find out a ready-made clothes shop—second-hand, if possible—and buy a pair of corduroy trousers, a flannel shirt, a rough coat and waistcoat, and a red cotton handkerchief. Mind you don't forget the handkerchief! Shall we say two rig-outs?" he inquired, turning to his friend, "or do you prefer going as you are?"
"As I am, by all means," answered Mr. Neil Reid, with a short laugh, glancing at his irreproachable attire. "I don't mind going amongst these people to hear what they've got to say, but I'm hanged if I care about imitating their style of dress."
"Very well then, be off with you, Burditt, and look sharp. You going too, Reid? Stop a bit, where shall I see you?
"Top of Oxford Street, in an hour's time, and you'd better have your cheque-book with you," Neil Reid answered, laughing. "On second thoughts, though, I think you'd better leave it at home. You'll most certainly be mobbed if you begin to air your aristocratic notions. Better pay forfeit."
There was the slightest possible inflection of a sneer in his tone, and it had the desired effect. Lord Hadley would as likely as not have thought better of it, and have paid the money, but for the other's words. As it was he drew himself up steadily, almost haughtily, and looked at his friend.
"I think not; if you carry out your part of the programme, I will mine.'
"And if you do," muttered Mr. Neil Reid, as he stepped into a stray hansom, "it won't be my fault it you don't spend Christmas at Bradgate Park. What was it he said to me, 'all's fair in love and war'? Ah well, Hadley, I can make use of that hackneyed quotation as well as you. Socialist's Club, Camberwell Road, cabby, and look sharp."
At one o'clock that morning Trafalgar Square was filled to overflowing with a heterogeneous mob of excited people, some loungers and street vagabonds, a sprinkling of even worse characters, and a minority of the genuine unemployed, desperate with real need, and eagerly listening for the advice of those in whom, wisely or unwisely, they had put their trust. Chiefly they flocked together round a brewer's dray, on which stood several of those who were to address them; amongst whom, standing slightly in the background, was a tall, slight man, in the garb of a coal-heaver with a red cotton handkerchief around his neck, and an expression of intense interest in his well-cut, shapely features. The meeting had commenced without interruption, and in many different parts of the Square the speakers were already haranguing the crowd from hastily extemporized platforms. Suddenly there was a cry of warning, and a large body of police were seen making desperate attempts to reach the ringleaders. That they would not be able to do this very soon became evident, for the people were wedged together so closely that they formed a quite impenetrable mass, and after a short struggle the police gave it up, and, amidst howls of derision, withdrew to await reinforcements. The speaker for the nonce, however, on the principal platform, had taken alarm and vanished, and for a moment or two no one came forward. Then just as the people were beginning to get impatient, the man with the red-cotton handkerchief round his neck came boldly to the front, and turning towards the crowd commenced to address them. His views seemed popular, for at every sentence they cheered him vehemently. Higher and higher grew their enthusiasm, as his speech progressed, and cheer after cheer rent the air as his manner became more earnest, and his words flowed more volubly. One man alone, standing near the platform, in a long dark ulster and with a reporter's note-book, seemed to find little that was pleasant in the speaker's words, for he was standing motionless, making no attempt to write, even staring at the man on the platform with a curious expression of bewildered dismay, together with not a little disappointment. Perhaps Mr. Neil Reid had never in his life before experienced such a shock of overpowering surprise.
Suddenly in the midst of a very storm of applause there was a hush and a cry of warning. The police, heavily reinforced, had succeeded in getting inside the circle and were making for the platform. The orator leaped down, the crowd opened their ranks to receive him, and he passed like magic through the dense throng, and was lost to the struggling myrmidons of the law.
That evening Lord Hadley sat down to his dinner with a hearty appetite and in high good humour, rare events with him latterly. With dessert was brought in the evening paper, and presently he carelessly shook it open, and began to glance through its contents. He had not gone far before he started and uttered a quick exclamation, which considerably shocked the old servant who stood behind his chair. There was some little excuse for him, though, for almost the first column his eye fell upon was headed by his own name in large type. He put down his glass, which he had been in the act of raising to his lips, and eagerly read through the paragraphs:—
"GREAT MEETING OF THE UNEMPLOYED IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE
Gallant Escapade of the Marquis of Hetherdean
A Riot Avoided.
The expected mass meeting of the unemployed was held this afternoon in Trafalgar Square, in defiance of the police regulations, and it appears quite certain that a most disastrous riot was only prevented by the gallant conduct of a young English nobleman, Francis Hadley, Marquis of Hetherdean. From an early hour in the morning the Square was partly filled with a disreputable mob of loafers and vagabonds, who had assembled to take part in the afternoon's demonstration, and at no time could the police, although in great force, keep the people moving. Towards one o'clock the ingoing stream steadily increased, and an hour later a dense throng completely held the Square. Several speeches of a highly inflammatory nature were delivered, despite the desperate efforts of the police to reach the platform, and matters were in a very critical state, when the Marquis of Hetherdean, who, being disguised as a working man, was not generally known, mounted the platform and expostulated with great effect. Unfortunately, no reporters succeeded in reaching the vicinity of the platform, but we understand his lordship, in a speech of some ten minutes' duration, exposed in a most masterly fashion the dangerous errors and falsities of socialist doctrines generally, and implored the people to disperse without any disturbance. The arguments of the orator were, strange to say, most favourably received, and, together with the arrival of a large body of police, were, without doubt, instrumental in preventing a repetition of the last deplorable riots, a contingency which at one time appeared imminent. There is no man in England that should feel more proud to-night than the gallant young nobleman whose heroic, though somewhat quixotic, action has spared a great city from the disgrace of another street riot. We trust that Lord Hadley, now that he has broken the ice, will take an active part in political life, and will give us the opportunity of hearing again that eloquence, of which he must undoubtedly be possessed, in the House of Lords, where such a gift is sadly wanted."
Lord Hadley leaned back in his chair in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction. Before he had had time to recover himself, there was a knock at the door, and his servant put a letter into his hand, with the remark that it had just arrived by special messenger. He tore it open, and glanced through it. It was from the Home Secretary, and alluded in highly complimentary terms to his "gallant behaviour and patriotism," in Trafalgar Square, and concluded by thanking him heartily, officially and personally, for his heroic action.
The Marquis of Hetherdean took a long breath, and poured himself out a glass of wine. Scarcely had he set the glass down when Mr. Neil Reid was announced.
"My most sincere congratulations," the newcomer remarked drily, as he laid a cheque upon the table. "I had no idea that you were a rank socialist at heart, Lord Hadley, or I might have hesitated before I framed that bet. Let me congratulate you on your opinions, your oratory, and your good fortune."
It struck Lord Hadley that something more than the loss of an ordinary bet was the matter with his friend and rival.
His eyes were burning with suppressed excitement, and he seemed as though he could control his temper only by a strong effort. He was still in morning dress, and there was a dishevelled appearance about him altogether, just as though he had been drinking. Lord Hadley took in these details and answered coolly:—
"Much obliged, Reid. It's certainly just as well that the newspapers didn't get hold of really what I did say."
"Ay, it is," Reid assented with a short unpleasant laugh. "The world would be surprised to hear that your lordship thought all differences is rank humbug, believed in an equal distribution of wealth, and the establishment of a republic. What if I tell them?"
Lord Hadley shrugged his shoulders, and looked perfectly indifferent.
"Look here, Hadley," exclaimed Reid savagely, "I'll make a bargain with you: give up spending Christmas at Bradgate, and leave Flora Saville with me—I want her money—and I'll do nothing. But unless you make me that promise, by G— you shall repent it. I'll reproduce that brilliant speech of yours, and publish it everywhere; and more than that, I'll set the people on you for a hypocrite, and if I'm cut off with a shilling, I'll go to Bradgate Park for Christmas, and spoil your game with Flora Saville! Decide!"
"I have already decided," said Lord Hadley quietly, "that if you are not out of my house in two minutes, I shall throw you out. I have always had my doubts about you, and now I know that you are a cad."
Neil Reid hesitated for a moment, pale and shaking with rage. Then he turned on his heel with an evil smile and left the room.
He had scarcely gone before another visitor was announced—George Ellingcombe, Lord Hadley's cousin, and his close t friend.
"My dear Hadley," exclaimed the newcomer, as he established himself in an easy chair, "why didn't you take me with you this morning? I might have come in for a little reflected glory, at any rate. 'Pon my word I never dreamt that you were a philanthropist, or anything of that sort. Why, all London is talking about you. Lucky devil!"
Lord Hadley took another glass of wine, and then astonished his cousin by throwing himself back in an easy chair and subsiding into a perfect fit of laughter. Then he sat up and wiped his eyes.
"George," he said feebly, "this'll be the death of me. Swear by everything that's holy that you'll keep it dark."
"I swear by these cigars," he remarked with mock solemnity; "proceed."
"Well, then, it's all a grand sell. They've got hold of the wrong end of the stick, somehow. You see, Neil Reid bet me a hundred pounds I wouldn't make a speech to those fellows. Well, I made up my mind I would, and you know I'm rather obstinate. He got me on the platform, and I'm pretty sure now that he meant to get me mobbed. However, as I didn't see the fun of that, when my turn came to speak I just pitched it stronger than any of them—made an out-and-out socialist speech. I really did feel sorry for the poor devils, and it's very easy when once you've made a start. You should have heard the cheer! And you should just have seen Reid's face Of course he'd taken care to let them know who I was, hoping to make it all the hotter for me, and it all cut the other way, when they'd heard what I'd got to say. If there had been a reporter, I should have been done. I had to cut for it, I can tell you, to avoid being taken, but the people opened for me, and helped me on like bricks. I nearly tumbled off my chair just now, when I saw that paragraph in the Globe, and directly afterwards had a pompous epistle from old Matthews."
The Hon. George Ellingcombe listened to his cousin's recital with open-mouthed amazement. Then he broke into a short laugh.
"By Jove Hadley, you're a lucky fellow, and no mistake," he exclaimed vigorously. "You should just hear how people are talking about you. I don't remember such a sensation since Fred Castleton went off with the Countess. And only to think that—oh, it's too absurd! I'll keep your secret, I promise you. Can't stop a moment longer, the mater's waiting for me. Come down to the club to-night and be lionized."
Later on in the evening, Lord Hadley did look in at the club, and was instantly beset with a shower of congratulations and chaff, all of which he received with becoming gravity and modesty. On his return home, however, he indulged in another prolonged fit of merriment, greatly to the mystification of the astonished Burditt, who began to have Faye doubts as to his master's sanity. But Burditt v as destined to find still greater cause for astonishment shortly.
Lord Hadley slept soundly that night, but towards morning he awoke suddenly to find Burditt by his bedside with a scared face, and a curious rumbling sound in the street below.
"What on earth's the matter?" he exclaimed, sitting up and listening.
"Matter!! my lord, matter enough! Why we shall have the house about our ears in a minute," replied the trembling servant. "There's the biggest crowd of roughs I ever saw in my life blocking up the whole street, and calling for your lordship. There they are again!" and a deafening roar from many thousand throats seemed almost to shake the house.
"Hetherdean! Hetherdean! A speech! A speech! Cum out!"
Lord Hadley listened with a sudden realization of his awful dilemma. Then he sprang out of bed, and commenced hastily to dress himself.
"Quick I my trousers and waistcoat, Burditt. Don't stand there like a fool! This is serious! Now listen to me. Don't get sending for the police, or bolting the doors. Get the women-servants out of the house by the back door, and take the plate into the cellar. First of all, open the window. That'll do."
A mighty roar greeted Lord Hadley's appearance on the balcony—a roar half of applause, half of menace; and as it died away other cries arose.
"A speech! a speech!" "Come and contradict the newspapers." "Hurrah for Hetherdean and a republic!" "Cum and let's hear what yer got to say!"
Lord Hadley cleared his throat, and stood facing the people, smiling, and apparently quite at his ease, until the clamour had subsided. Suddenly his eye met Neil Reid's, who was standing with one or two professional reporters right to the front. There was a triumphant look on the latter's upturned face, but Lord Hadley met it steadily and without flinching, without even abating his pleasant smile.
"My friends," he exclaimed, in clear, ringing tones, as soon as there was comparative silence, "you have taken me by surprise, but I am glad to see you. You say you want a speech. Well, I thought I'd spoken to you pretty plainly yesterday, but you shall have it all over again, if you want it. I tell you what I'd rather do, though; I'd rather stand you a breakfast. You look hungry, some of you, and it's a cold morning."
There was a howl of frenzied applause front many hundreds of starving throats. One man only persisted in calling for a speech, and he was immediately hustled and jolted by a furious crowd.
"There are too many of you to come in here, I'm afraid," Lord Hadley continued. "We must manage it another way. I will come down, and go round to some of these coffee-houses with you. We—"
A deafening roar of applause. One man alone refused to join in it, and in less than a moment he was hustled off his feet, trodden upon, spat at, kicked, his clothes torn, and his face smeared with dirt and blood. Then they left him alone, at the stern command of the man who was going to give them food. One of them indeed was merciful enough to lift him up and prop him against a railing before they hurried after their fellows. There he remained until a policeman put him in a cab and had him taken, more dead than alive, to his chambers.
That was a strange crowd which trudged along after Lord Hadley through the early morning streets. Eager-looking women with children running by their sides, or clasped in their arms; gaunt, hollow-eyed men, with a wolfish glare in their eyes; rogues, vagabonds, the scum of the earth. And yet, as at each coffee-house they came to (after a brief interview with the proprietor, during which they waited quietly outside) Lord Hadley passed some of them in, and told them that they were free to eat as much as they would, and there was not one who failed to thank him with trembling, eager voices. And somehow, when it was all over, and, tired out, he found himself free to return to the house, the memory of those starving, grateful voices seemed to him like the memory of the sweetest music he had ever heard. It had all been a trick to get himself out of an awkward scrape, to get rid of them; but he felt that out of folly good had come. He had been bored, sated with pleasure-seeking, and had sought, in a mad adventure, for a new sensation. By chance he had gained it, and it remained with him. It led him on in the future to plead in the House of Lords for the people, as very few peers had ever done. It led him on to the prosecution of great schemes, to the accomplishment of many designs of practical philanthropy. It won for him a name adored by those for whom he toiled, respected and admired by the whole nation; and it won for him a wife whose name is written side by side with his in the hearts of the toilers and workers of the great city in which they live. He has had a long life and a happy one, but never happier, he says, than when Flora Saville and he walked home hand-in-hand through the leafless trees of Bradgate Park, on the day after his first good deed, and she had whispered the word which most of all others he longed to hear.
wo men sat smoking their after-dinner cigars in the long, low dining-room of Houghton Grange, in most masculine silence—a silence, however, which proceeded in each case from a very different cause. The elder of the two—the master of Houghton Grange, a man of about thirty-five years of age, was lounging comfortably before the fire, complacently enjoying his cabana, and his silence was the silence of repletion and satisfaction with things in general. It was easy to see that neither his digestion nor his worldly affairs were out of gear. His guest, however, who appeared to be a much younger man, did not bear in his face the signs of a like complacency. He still remained seated at the table, and, with his head resting in his hands and a moody frown on his brow, was apparently engaged in studying the pattern of the table-cloth. He was the first to speak.
"Is there any chance of Miss Smith being at Lady Malvern's to-night?" he inquired suddenly, as if the idea had only just occurred to him.
Mr. Coulson, his host, shook his head.
"Not the ghost of a chance, my dear fellow. The county people don't even tolerate old Smith; he's such a beastly cad."
"No bad language about my future father-in-law, please," said the young man, with a grim smile.
"Future father-in-law! What rubbish! Why, you've never spoken a word to the girl in your life, and never saw her before this morning. You're a pretty cool hand, I must say, Escott, if you're not joking."
"I was never more serious in my life," declared the other doggedly. "I don't care a fig what her father's like. I've fallen in love with the girl, and I'll swear she's a lady; and, what's more, I'm going to marry her!"
His friend turned round and stared at him, in half-amused, half-vexed astonishment.
"What nonsense you talk, Dick!" he said. "Marry her on nothing a year, and something pretty considerable to the bad in the shape of a cartload of debts! I don't suppose your pay more than pays the interest of them. You must be mad to talk about marrying!"
"Her father is a Croesus. He can give the girl money."
"He can, but he won't if you're the husband. You'd better get rid of that idea as soon as possible. Old Smith is different from most of the retired City cads. He don't care a fig for society or the aristocracy. Snap his fingers at us, and says' he ain't going to have any fine gentleman dangling after his daughter's money-bags.' He means to marry her to a man named Gryce, who took his business in the City. I've heard him say so myself. If she married you, he'd simply cut her off with a shilling. And, besides, you're not likely to meet her, old chap. You won't see anything of them in our set, and she doesn't look the sort of girl you'd scrape acquaintance with anyhow."
Captain Escott smiled. A boyish-looking face his, but wonderfully handsome. Women had done their best to spoil him by praising his clear-cut features, his blue eyes and smooth skin; but he had survived the spoiling, and was at heart what every man called him—a thoroughly good fellow.
"I don't often make up my mind about anything, Coulson," he said deliberately, "but I have done this time. I daresay you think I'm in a pretty mess to start love-making. Heigho! I don't care. Duns and writs may go to the d—l; worrying about them won't pay them will it? and I must get to know that girl."
"Well, I wish you luck," said his friend, rising. "If you're quite sure that you won't come to Lady Malvern's—they're awfully hard up for men, and would be charmed to see you—I must go, for the brougham's round, and my wife hates being kept waiting. I'll come round to your room and smoke a cigar with you when I get back, if you like.'
About two o'clock in the morning Mr. Coulson returned from Lady Malvern's dance, and exchanging his dress-coat for a shooting-jacket, made his way into his guest's room.
Captain Escott welcomed him with a nod, and kicked a chair towards him.
"Had a good dance?"
"Very fair. Dances are not much in my line now, though," replied Mr. Coulson, dropping into the chair and carefully selecting a cigar from the open box on the table. "Astonishing how differently you regard these sort of things when you're a married man, Dick, my boy. What have you been doing with yourself all the evening?"
"I've been to Saddington Hall—to Smith's," said Captain Escott quietly.
"Been to the d——l!" exclaimed Mr. Coulson incredulously. "Nonsense!"
"It's perfectly true. I recognized Miss Smith's man this morning at the meet. He used to be head-groom at The Towers, so I thought I should like to look him up, you know, and have a chat about home."
Mr. Coulson laughed. "Well, you didn't see your divinity, I suppose?"
Captain Escott took a long draw at his cigar.
"No, I did not see Miss Smith," he assented. "After my interview with Burditt, I took particular good care to keep out of the way. I found out something rather interesting about her, though."
"Ah! Is she engaged?"
"Not that I'm aware of. But she inherits three thousand pounds a year from her mother, independent of old Smith. I found that out. He's kept it from her, and Burditt only came to know of it by accident, through having a nephew in Somerset House. Of course she's bound to know when she comes of age next month; so I haven't much time to lose. I must be engaged to her before then."
Mr. Coulson's interest in his friend's infatuation increased wonderfully when he had digested this piece of news.
"It wouldn't be at all a bad thing for you, Dick, my boy," he acknowledged; "you must marry money, and soon. But how the deuce are we to get at these Smiths? The old man is a Tartar, and the girl isn't the sort you could scrape an acquaintance with unceremoniously in the hunting-field. I ought to be able to help you here, but I can't. You see, my wife never dreamt of calling. I'd have made her if I'd known about this before; but it's too late now."
"I've laid my own plans, thank you," said Captain Escott quietly. "Now listen to me carefully. There isn't the slightest chance of getting even an introduction by ordinary means, so I'm going to try extraordinary ones. Old Smith wants a groom. I intend—in fact, I've already made sure of the situation. You needn't look at me like that; I'm quite serious. I don't know any of your friends yet, thank goodness, and I don't know a soul in this part of the country; so I shall be perfectly safe. Burditt is in the secret, and is red-hot for me. Everything's arranged. I'm to have a little cottage to myself away from the stables. All I want from you is a character."
Mr. Coulson dropped his cigar and looked at his friend aghast.
"You're joking, Escott!"
"I was never more serious in my life."
"But—but I don't see what good this mad freak of yours will do, even if you carry it out. If your divinity is anything like what she appears to be, she isn't the sort of girl to let her groom make love to her."
Captain Dick smiled. "You leave Miss Smith alone, and give me that character."'
Mr. Coulson suddenly took in the humour of the situation, and burst into a roar of laughter.
"Well, here goes," he said, moving to the table; "you've got some paper ready for me, I see. What am I to say?"
"I don't want you to say anything that isn't true. Just write that you've known Richard Escott for—let's see, what year were we at Eton together? Say, ten years."
"And can certify that he is honest, sober—" Mr. Coulson flung down his pen and burst out laughing again.
"Hang it all! Dick; I can't say that, you know. How about that night at the club when you floured the waiter and put old—"
"Honest, sober, and trustworthy. Go on, and don't be a fool!" interrupted Dick.
"It's all very well, you know," protested Mr. Coulson, taking up his pen again. "Well, I've put it. Anything else?"
"You'd better say that I can ride."
"That's about the truest part of the character," remarked Mr. Coulson. "I'll put that in with pleasure."
"That'll do. Hand it over. You see that parcel in the corner? Well, that's a suit of livery, and I'm going to put it on and clear from here at five o'clock. You'll be so good as to make my excuses to your wife, and let the servants think that I've been obliged to run up to town by the early morning train. And just have my traps put together and sent to Burditt at Saddington Hall by some one whom you can trust."
"All right, old man—and good luck."
The new groom was duly installed at Saddington Hall, and gave great satisfaction. Fortune favours the rash sometimes, and it favoured Dick Escott in this mad escapade. On the first evening of his arrival Miss Smith's favourite hunter, Lizette, had a fit in the stable. A veterinary from Harborough pronounced the case hopeless, and word was sent in to Miss Smith that her favourite must be shot. She spent a miserable evening and a sleepless night, fretting; but early in the morning her maid knocked at her door with some joyful news. Burditt had sent in word that Lizette was better, and would she come to the stables? In half an hour her arm was round Lizette's neck.
"She'll do now," remarked Burditt, with considerable satisfaction. "Muster Hamson, the veterinary, he was for shooting her last night; but the new groom, who had just turned up opportune, like a rare nice young chap he is, he laughed at 'im, and got some drugs from the village to make a mash, and sat up all night a-giving them to her. I never see'd any one take to a 'oss so. He sat all the mortal night with her head in his lap, and he's just brought her round again—that's what he's done."
Miss Smith jumped up with a radiant smile.
"Where is he?" she asked, "and what's his name? I shall go straight and thank him."
"He's got t' old cottage Miles used to have, but—"
Miss Smith was already gone, and Burditt gave vent to a delightful chuckle.
That visit very nearly spoilt the whole game. Dick had taken off his groom's coat and donned a shooting-jacket, and when Miss Smith lifted the latch and entered the cottage he was lolling in an easy chair with a cigar in his mouth and something suspiciously like a brandy and seltzer by his side. Neither his position nor his immediate surroundings were exactly in accord with his new calling.
He was astonished, but was equal to the occasion. In a moment the cigar was pitched into the grate, the Sporting Life fell over a silver cigar-case, and a clumsy salutation took the place of the bow and courteous inquiry which had almost escaped him.
Miss Smith—a tall, handsome girl—stood with her hand on the latch, and looked at him with a gracious smile.
"You are the new groom, I believe—Escott? I have come to thank you very much for your kindness to my poor Lizette. Burditt tells me that you saved her life."
Dick had quite recovered himself by this time.
"I'm very glad to have been of any use, miss," he said quietly. "It would have been such a pity if she'd been shot, a fine animal like that, and such a favourite of yours, too, they tell me."
"I am very fond of her. Are you married, Escott?" she continued, glancing round the room. "I am not, miss."
"Then who looks after you?" It appeared to her that the new groom was a man of taste.
He laughed, and made a slip—the first.
"I am no sybarite, and I need very little looking after. I cook my meals there, miss," he continued, pointing to a gas-stove. "Mrs. Burditt does the cleaning for me and such little things as I don't understand. I've roughed it worse than this when I was a youngster in Zululand."
She stared at him curiously. He was a novelty in the way of grooms.
"Ah, well. Thank you once more, Escott, for nursing Lizette so nicely for me. Good-morning."
"Good-morning, miss;" and he sprang forward and opened the door for her.
Later on in the morning Burditt sought his young mistress with a request. The rheumatics were troubling him, and Prince Charles was fractious, and took a lot of holding at the gate. Might the new groom attend her to the meets?
Miss Smith had not the slightest objection.
"Where did he come from, this new groom?" she asked carelessly.
Burditt heaved a sigh, the old humbug!
"Well, miss, I'm afraid he's had a lot of trouble, that young gentleman—come down in the world, you know. He came here with a splendid character from Mr. Coulson, of Houghton Grange, but he ain't been a groom allus, I'll wager. It's my private belief, miss," he added confidentially, "that he was born a gentleman."
Miss Smith laughed incredulously and walked away, but secretly she thought it not at all unlikely.
Several days passed without event. The new groom turned out to be civil, intelligent, and respectful, and withal a magnificent horseman. Several tempting offers of service were made to him on the hunting-field, but these he steadily declined. His young mistress, feeling herself in somewhat of an anomalous position, bore herself at the meets in so independent a manner as to be universally considered proud; but her pride was merely reserve, and she was never above exchanging remarks with her groom whenever the exigencies of the run placed them side by side, and even occasionally on their way home. His ready and often amusing answers interested her, and generally, without her perceiving it, a conversation sprang up. He appeared to have travelled and seen much of life, and he told his young mistress much that it interested her to know. Then his opportune rescue of Lizette, who had now quite recovered, had won her gratitude and engendered a kindly interest in him, which Burditt's remark and his own bearing and conversation had increased.
Yet, notwithstanding her favour, he never lost his head, and really displayed an admirable amount of tact. He never presumed too far, but kept forcing the limits of their conversation further and further away. If he feared having over-stepped the line, he was at once extra civil and respectful until her momentary uneasiness passed away. Thus it came to pass that their homeward rides were generally made side by side, and, although Miss Smith altogether failed to realize it, were by no means the least enjoyable part of the day to her. One morning she had a companion to the meet. Her proposed suitor from London—a vulgar, overdressed man, bearing in every movement and action the unmistakable impress of the City cad—was spending a few days at Saddington Hall. Captain Dick had scarcely reckoned upon him, and the fellow's vulgar compliments and leers as he rode by Miss Smith's side very nearly secured him a severe castigation from her groom, who rode behind, nearly boiling over with rage.
There was one consolation, however—Miss Smith gave very evident signs of disgust at her forced companionship, and once, when during a short run he had been left a few fields behind, she made a slight detour and turned homewards, with the evident purpose of ridding herself of him. He detected the manoeuvre, however, and was by her side again in a moment.
Dick muttered an oath, but a regretful glance from his young mistress, involuntary though it was, almost reconciled him.
After all, the climax came that morning. A sudden storm overtook them on the way home, and Mr. Gryce and Miss Smith dismounted and entered a large barn. The latter beckoned her groom to follow suit.
"Oh, hang it I there's no room for that fellow!" exclaimed Mr. Gryce roughly; "a wetting won't hurt him. Here, my man, here's half a crown for you. Go on to the village and wait for us. Don't get drunk, mind."
Dick hesitated; then an appealing glance from his young mistress decided him. He rode up to Mr. Gryce, solemnly pocketed the half-crown, and, turning round, rode away. He did not go quite as far as the village, though; in fact, he remained within half a dozen yards of the barn, although unseen.
Soon the sound of an angry voice and an oath reached him, and he drew nearer still.
"By God! Miss Mabel, you shall marry me, whether you will or not; so you'd better make up your mind to it at once. Your father has promised, and he shall make you," exclaimed a thick passionate voice.
"He will do nothing of the sort," was the firm reply. "Release my hand at once, sir!"
"Never, until you give me a kiss and promise to marry me. Come."
A scuffle, a shriek, and before he well realized what was happening Mr. Gryce felt himself lifted from his feet by a strong grasp and flung heavily to the ground. He looked up, and Miss Smith's groom was standing over him with a passionate fury in his keen blue eyes.
"You hound! You dirty beast of a groom!" he spluttered out as he staggered to his feet. "I'll make you pay for this! How dare you lay your dirty hands on a gentleman?"
The passion died out of Dick's eyes as he surveyed the mean-looking object who stood before him shaking with impotent rage, and he smiled.
"A what?" he inquired.
Mr. Gryce stamped his foot in a paroxysm of blind rage.
"If you were only my equal," he burst out, "instead of a low blackguard of a groom—"
"I should be very sorry to be your equal, Mr. Gryce," said Dick coolly. "I am a gentleman, however, and shall be happy to pass over our inequality and give you any satisfaction you desire. There is my card—Captain Escott, 4th Dragoons—and a note to the Army and Navy Club, or care of my brother, Sir Herbert Escott, of Stretton Hall, Leicestershire, will be sure to find me. And now let me tell you this, sir, unless you mount that horse of yours and make yourself scarce in three minutes, I shall give you the sound, horsewhipping that you deserve. Be off."
Mr. Gryce laughed a forced, uneasy laugh.
"Gammon!" he exclaimed roughly, moving a pace or two towards his horse, however. "You don't suppose I believe that rubbish! Miss Smith, this groom of yours is drunk. Allow me to escort you home."
She darted an indignant glance at him and moved a little further away.
"If you presume to come near or even speak to me again," she exclaimed contemptuously, "I—I hope that he will horsewhip you."
Dick clenched his whip firmly and his blue eyes flashed fire.
"You hear that, sir," he said. "Be off!"
Mr. Gryce climbed into his saddle and rode away without another word. There was a silence. Then Miss Smith turned to her groom.
"Perhaps, sir, you will now be good enough to explain what this masquerading means," she said haughtily. But, in spite of her efforts, she could not altogether keep the gratitude from her eyes.
"I was about to do so," he said quietly, nerving himself for the crisis. "I am, as I told that cad, a captain in the 4th Dragoons and a gentleman. I am a sham groom. Let me confess how it has happened. I came down here to stop with a friend of mine, Mr. Coulson, at Houghton Grange, and I saw you at the meet."
He hesitated and glanced at her face. It was inscrutable.
"I don't know if you'll ever forgive me," he went on desperately, "but it wasn't exactly my fault. I fell in love with you; I couldn't help that, you know. I asked Coulson if I couldn't be introduced, but he told me that it was impossible. From him I learnt your father's strong aversion to—to us, and his intention of making you marry that fellow Gryce. Everything seemed against me, but I swore to know you somehow, and, you see, I have succeeded so far, at any rate. Burditt was my sister's groom years ago, and I confided in him. I got him to engage me as a groom, and—and here I am. Don't turn away from me, Mabel," he pleaded. "I know it was a mean thing to do, but I could think of no other way, and I felt that I must get to know you; you know why. Tell me that there is a little, just a little, hope for me."
She kept her eyes fixed upon the ground, and he felt that every moment of silence was golden. Pride was struggling with anger in her features while she was framing some stern rebuke.
She looked up with a heavy frown, and opened her lips, but as her eyes met his, full of an eager, hopeful light, they drooped, and the rebuke melted away.
"I don't believe you really care for me," she said in a low voice.
"But I do, Mabel," he said earnestly. "Do you think I should have gone through what I have unless I did? You forgive me?" and his hand touched hers and gently took possession of it.
"It was very wrong of you," she muttered demurely, "but—"
Some men are woefully misrepresented. Old Smith was no Tartar, after all. That same afternoon, having resumed his ordinary dress, Captain Escott called upon him, and in a frank, straightforward manner told him the whole truth.
To his unspeakable amazement, his prospective father-in-law, after listening to his recital in solemn silence, burst into a roar of hearty laughter.
"You shall have her, my boy, for your pluck!" he said, slapping the young officer on the back. "I like your face, and I like the way you've made a clean breast of it all. Gryce can go to the devil. Mabel's a lot too good for him. Stay and dine."
And he did.
Roy Glashan's Library
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