The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Twenty One

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Nebuly Coat by J. Meade Falkner
Chapter Twenty One

The foreman of the masons at work in the under-pinning of the south-east pier came to see Westray at nine o'clock the next morning. He was anxious that the architect should go down to the church at once, for the workmen, on reaching the tower shortly after daybreak, found traces of a fresh movement which had taken place during the night. But Westray was from home, having left Cullerne for London by the first train.

About ten of the same forenoon, the architect was in the shop of a small picture-dealer in Westminster. The canvas of the flowers and caterpillar picture lay on the counter, for the man had just taken it out of the frame.

"No," said the dealer, "there is no paper or any kind of lining in the frame—just a simple wood backing, you see. It is unusual to back at all, but it is done now and again"—and he tapped the loose frame all round. "It is an expensive frame, well made, and with good gilding. I shouldn't be surprised if the painting underneath this daub turned out to be quite respectable; they would never put a frame like this on anything that wasn't pretty good."

"Do you think you can clean off the top part without damaging the painting underneath?"

"Oh dear, yes," the man said; "I've had many harder jobs. You leave it with me for a couple of days, and we'll see what we can make of it."

"Couldn't it be done quicker than that?" Westray said. "I'm in rather a hurry. It is difficult for me to get up to London, and I should rather like to be by, when you begin to clean it."

"Don't make yourself anxious," the other said; "you can leave it in my hands with perfect confidence. We're quite used to this business."

Westray still looked unsatisfied. The dealer gave a glance round the shop. "Well," he said, "things don't seem very busy this morning; if you're in such a hurry, I don't mind just trying a little bit of it now. We'll put it on the table in the back-room. I can see if anyone comes into the shop."

"Begin where the face ought to be," Westray said; "let us see whose portrait it is."

"No, no," said the dealer; "we won't risk the face yet. Let us try something that doesn't matter much. We shall see how this stuff peels off; that'll give us a guide for the more important part. Here, I'll start with the table-top and caterpillar. There's something queer about that caterpillar, beside the face some joker's fitted it up with. I'm rather shy about the caterpillar. Looks to me as if it was a bit of the real picture left showing through, though I don't very well see how a caterpillar would fit in with a portrait." The dealer passed the nail of his forefinger lightly over the surface of the picture. "It seems as if 'twas sunk. You can feel the edges of this heavy daubing rough all round it."

It was as he pointed out; the green caterpillar certainly appeared to form some part of the underlying picture. The man took out a bottle, and with a brush laid some solution on the painting. "You must wait for it to dry. It will blister and frizzle up the surface, then we can rub off the top gently with a cloth, and you'll see what you will see."

"The fellow who painted this table-top didn't spare his colours," said the dealer half an hour later, "and that's all the better for us. See, it comes off like a skin"—and he worked away tenderly with a soft flannel. "Well, I'm jiggered," he went on, "if here isn't another caterpillar higher up! No, it ain't a caterpillar; but if it ain't a caterpillar, what is it?"

There was indeed another wavy green line, but Westray knew what it was directly he saw it. "Be careful," he said; "they aren't caterpillars at all, but just part of a coat of arms—a kind of bars in an heraldic shield, you know. There will be another shorter green line lower down."

It was as he said, and in a minute more there shone out the silver field and the three sea-green bars of the nebuly coat, and below it the motto Aut Fynes aut finis, just as it shone in the top light of the Blandamer window. It was the middle bar that Sophia had turned into a caterpillar, and in pure wantonness left showing through, when for her own purposes she had painted out the rest of the picture. Westray's excitement was getting the better of him—he could not keep still; he stood first on one leg and then on another, and drummed on the table with his fingers.

The dealer put his hand on the architect's arm. "For God's sake keep quiet!" he said; "don't excite yourself. You needn't think you have found a gold mine. It ain't a ten thousand-guinea Vandyke. We can't see enough yet to say what it is, but I'll bet my life you never get a twenty-pound note for it."

But for all Westray's impatience, the afternoon was well advanced before the head of the portrait was approached. There had been so few interruptions, that the dealer felt called upon to extenuate the absence of custom by explaining more than once that it was a very dull season. He was evidently interested in his task, for he worked with a will till the light began to fail. "Never mind," he said; "I will get a lamp; now we have got so far we may as well go a bit further."

It was a full-face picture, as they saw a few minutes afterwards. Westray held the lamp, and felt a strange thrill go through him, as he began to make out the youthful and unwrinkled brow. Surely he knew that high forehead—it was Anastasia's, and there was Anastasia's dark wavy hair above it. "Why, it's a woman after all," the dealer said. "No, it isn't; of course, how could it be with a brown velvet coat and waistcoat? It's a young man with curly hair."

Westray said nothing; he was too much excited, too much interested to say a word, for two eyes were peering at him through the mist. Then the mist lifted under the dealer's cloth, and the eyes gleamed with a startling brightness. They were light-grey eyes, clear and piercing, that transfixed him and read the very thoughts that he was thinking. Anastasia had vanished. It was Lord Blandamer that looked at him out of the picture.

They were Lord Blandamer's eyes, impenetrable and observant as to-day, but with the brightness of youth still in them; and the face, untarnished by middle age, showed that the picture had been painted some years ago. Westray put his elbows on the table and his head between his hands, while he gazed at the face which had thus come back to life. The eyes pursued him, he could not escape from them, he could scarcely spare a glance even for the nebuly coat that was blazoned in the corner. There were questions revolving in his mind for which he found as yet no answer. There was some mystery to which this portrait might be the clue. He was on the eve of some terrible explanation; he remembered all kinds of incidents that seemed connected with this picture, and yet could find no thread on which to string them. Of course, this head must have been painted when Lord Blandamer was young, but how could Sophia Flannery have ever seen it? The picture had only been the flowers and the table-top and caterpillar all through Miss Euphemia's memory, and that covered sixty years. But Lord Blandamer was not more than forty; and as Westray looked at the face he found little differences for which no change from youth to middle age could altogether account. Then he guessed that this was not the Lord Blandamer whom he knew, but an older one—that octogenarian who had died three years ago, that Horatio Sebastian Fynes, gentleman, who had married Sophia Flannery.

"It ain't a real first-rater," the dealer said, "but it ain't bad. I shouldn't be surprised if 'twas a Lawrence, and, anyway, it's a sight better than the flowers. Beats me to know how anyone ever came to paint such stuff as them on top of this respectable young man."

Westray was back in Cullerne the next evening. In the press of many thoughts he had forgotten to tell his landlady that he was coming, and he stood charing while a maid-of-all-work tried to light the recalcitrant fire. The sticks were few and damp, the newspaper below them was damp, and the damp coal weighed heavily down on top of all, till the thick yellow smoke shied at the chimney, and came curling out under the worsted fringe of the mantelpiece into the chilly room. Westray took this discomfort the more impatiently, in that it was due to his own forgetfulness in having sent no word of his return.

"Why in the world isn't the fire lit?" he said sharply. "You must have known I couldn't sit without a fire on a cold evening like this;" and the wind sang dismally in the joints of the windows to emphasise the dreariness of the situation.

"It ain't nothing to do with me," answered the red-armed, coal-besmeared hoyden, looking up from her knees; "it's the missus. 'He was put out with the coal bill last time,' she says, 'and I ain't going to risk lighting up his fire with coal at sixpence a scuttle, and me not knowing whether he's coming back to-night.'"

"Well, you might see at any rate that the fire was properly laid," the architect said, as the lighting process gave evident indications of failing for the third time.

"I do my best," she said in a larmoyant tone, "but I can't do everything, what with having to cook, and clean, and run up and down stairs with notes, and answer the bell every other minute to lords."

"Has Lord Blandamer been here?" asked Westray.

"Yes, he came yesterday and twice to-day to see you," she said, "and then he left a note. There 'tis"—and she pointed to the end of the mantelpiece.

Westray looked round, and saw an envelope edged in black. He knew the strong, bold hand of the superscription well enough, and in his present mood it sent something like a thrill of horror through him.

"You needn't wait," he said quickly to the servant; "it isn't your fault at all about the fire. I'm sure it's going to burn now."

The girl rose quickly to her feet, gave an astonished glance at the grate, which was once more enveloped in impotent blackness, and left the room.

An hour later, when the light outside was failing, Westray sat in the cold and darkening room. On the table lay open before him Lord Blandamer's letter:

"Dear Mr Westray,
"I called to see you yesterday, but was unfortunate in finding you absent from home, and so write these lines. There used to hang in your sitting-room at Bellevue Lodge an old picture of flowers which has some interest for my wife. Her affection for it is based on early associations, and not, of course, on any merits of the painting itself. I thought that it belonged to Miss Joliffe, but I find on inquiry from her that she sold it to you some little time ago, and that it is with you now. I do not suppose that you can attach any great value to it, and, indeed, I suspect that you bought it of Miss Joliffe as an act of charity. If this is so, I should be obliged if you would let me know if you are disposed to part with it again, as my wife would like to have it here.
"I am sorry to hear of fresh movement in the tower. It would be a bitter thought to me, if the peal that welcomed us back were found to have caused damage to the structure, but I am sure you will know that no expense should be spared to make all really secure as soon as possible.
"Very faithfully yours,
"Blandamer."

Westray was eager, impressionable, still subject to all the exaltations and depressions of youth. Thoughts crowded into his mind with bewildering rapidity; they trod so close upon each other's heels that there was no time to marshal them in order; excitement had dizzied him. Was he called to be the minister of justice? Was he chosen for the scourge of God? Was his the hand that must launch the bolt against the guilty? Discovery had come directly to him. What a piece of circumstantial evidence were these very lines that lay open on the table, dim and illegible in the darkness that filled the room! Yet clear and damning to one who had the clue.

This man that ruled at Fording was a pretender, enjoying goods that belonged to others, a shameless evil-doer, who had not stuck at marrying innocent Anastasia Joliffe, if by so stooping he might cover up the traces of his imposture. There was no Lord Blandamer, there was no title; with a breath he could sweep it all away like a house of cards. And was that all? Was there nothing else?

Night had fallen. Westray sat alone in the dark, his elbows on the table, his head still between his hands. There was no fire, there was no light, only the faint shimmer of a far-off street lamp brought a perception of the darkness. It was that pale uncertain luminosity that recalled to his mind another night, when the misty moon shone through the clerestory windows of Saint Sepulchre's. He seemed once more to be making his way up the ghostly nave, on past the pillars that stood like gigantic figures in white winding-sheets, on under the great tower arches. Once more he was groping in the utter darkness of the newel stair, once more he came out into the organ-loft, and saw the baleful silver and sea-green of the nebuly coat gleaming in the transept window. And in the corners of the room lurked presences of evil, and a thin pale shadow of Sharnall wrung its hands, and cried to be saved from the man with the hammer. Then the horrible suspicion that had haunted him these last days stared out of the darkness as a fact, and he sprung to his feet in a shiver of cold and lit a candle.

An hour, two hours, three hours passed before he had written an answer to the letter that lay before him, and in the interval a fresh vicissitude of mind had befallen him. He, Westray, had been singled out as the instrument of vengeance; the clue was in his hands; his was the mouth that must condemn. Yet he would do nothing underhand, he would take no man unawares; he would tell Lord Blandamer of his discovery, and give him warning before he took any further steps. So he wrote:

"My lord," and of the many sheets that were begun and flung away before the letter was finished, two were spoiled because the familiar address "Dear Lord Blandamer" came as it were automatically from Westray's pen. He could no longer bring himself to use those words now, even as a formality, and so he began:

"My Lord,
"I have just received your note about the picture bought by me of Miss Joliffe. I cannot say whether I should have been willing to part with it under ordinary circumstances. It had no apparent intrinsic value, but for me it was associated with my friend the late Mr Sharnall, organist of Saint Sepulchre's. We shared in its purchase, and it was only on his death that I came into sole possession of it. You will not have forgotten the strange circumstances of his end, and I have not forgotten them either. My friend Mr Sharnall was well-known among his acquaintances to be much interested in this picture. He believed it to be of more importance than appeared, and he expressed himself strongly to that effect in my presence, and once also, I remember, in yours.
"But for his untimely death I think he would have long ago made the discovery to which chance has now led me. The flowers prove to be a mere surface painting which concealed what is undoubtedly a portrait of the late Lord Blandamer, and at the back of the canvas were found copies of certain entries in parish registers relating to him. I most earnestly wish that I could end here by making over these things to you, but they seem to me to throw so strange a light on certain past events that I must hold myself responsible for them, and can give them up to no private person. At the same time, I do not feel justified in refusing to let you see picture and papers, if you should wish to do so, and to judge yourself of their importance. I am at the above address, and shall be ready to make an appointment at any time before Monday next, after which date I shall feel compelled to take further steps in this matter."

Westray's letter reached Lord Blandamer the next morning. It lay at the bottom of a little heap of correspondence on the breakfast-table, like the last evil lot to leap out of the shaken urn, an Ephedrus, like that Adulterer who at the finish tripped the Conqueror of Troy. He read it at a glance, catching its import rather by intuition than by any slavish following of the written characters. If earth was darkness at the core, and dust and ashes all that is, there was no trace of it in his face. He talked gaily, he fulfilled the duties of a host with all his charm of manner, he sped two guests who were leaving that morning with all his usual courtesy. After that he ordered his horse, and telling Lady Blandamer that he might not be back to lunch, he set out for one of those slow solitary rides on the estate that often seemed congenial to his mood. He rode along by narrow lanes and bridle-paths, not forgetting a kindly greeting to men who touched their hats, or women who dropped a curtsey, but all the while he thought.

The letter had sent his memory back to another black day, more than twenty years before, when he had quarrelled with his grandfather. It was in his second year at Oxford, when as an undergraduate he first felt it his duty to set the whole world in order. He held strong views as to the mismanagement of the Fording estates; and as a scholar and man of the world, had thought it weakness to shirk the expression of them. The timber was being neglected, there was no thinning and no planting. The old-fashioned farmhouses were being let fall into disrepair, and then replaced by parsimonious eaveless buildings; the very grazing in the park was let, and fallow-deer and red-deer were jostled by sheep and common mongrel cows. The question of the cows had galled him till he was driven to remonstrate strongly with his grandfather. There had never been much love lost between the pair, and on this occasion the young man found the old man strangely out of sympathy with suggestions of reform.

"Thank you," old Lord Blandamer had said; "I have heard all you have to say. You have eased your mind, and now you can go back to Oxford in peace. I have managed Fording for forty years, and feel myself perfectly competent to manage it for forty years more. I don't quite see what concern you have in the matter. What business is it of yours?"

"You don't see what concern I have in it," said the reformer impetuously; "you don't know what business it is of mine? Why, damage is being done here that will take a lifetime to repair."

A man must be on good terms with his heir not to dislike the idea of making way for him, and the old lord flew into one of those paroxysms of rage which fell upon him more frequently in his later years.

"Now, look you," he said; "you need not trouble yourself any more about Fording, nor think you will be so great a sufferer by my mismanagement. It is by no means certain that I shall ever burden you with the place at all."

Then the young man was angry in his turn. "Don't threaten me, sir," he said sharply; "I am not a boy any longer to be cowed by rough words, so keep your threats for others. You would disgrace the family and disgrace yourself, if you left the property away from the title."

"Make your mind easy," said the other; "the property shall follow the title. Get away, and let me hear no more, or you may find both left away from you."

The words were lightly spoken, perhaps in mere petulance at being taken to task by a boy, perhaps in the exasperating pangs of gout; but they had a bitter sound, and sank deep into the heart of youth. The threat of the other possible heirs was new, and yet was not new to him. It seemed as if he had heard something of this before, though he could not remember where; it seemed as if there had always been some ill-defined, intangible suspicion in the air of Fording to make him doubt, since he came to thinking years, whether the title ever really would be his.

Lord Blandamer remembered these things well, as he walked his horse through the beech-leaves with Westray's letter in his breast-pocket. He remembered how his grandfather's words had sent him about with a sad face, and how his grandmother had guessed the reason. He wondered how she had guessed it; but she too, perhaps, had heard these threats before, and so came at the cause more easily. Yet when she had forced his confidence she had little comfort to give.

He could see her now, a stately woman with cold blue eyes, still handsome, though she was near sixty.

"Since we are speaking of this matter," she said with chilling composure, "let us speak openly. I will tell you everything I know, which is nothing. Your grandfather threatened me once, many years ago, as he has threatened you now, and we have never forgotten nor forgiven." She moved herself in her chair, and there came a little flush of red to her cheek. "It was about the time of your father's birth; we had quarrelled before, but this was our first serious quarrel, and the last. Your father was different from me, you know, and from you; he never quarrelled, and he never knew this story. So far as I was concerned I took the responsibility of silence, and it was wisest so." She looked sterner than ever as she went on. "I have never heard or discovered anything more. I am not afraid of your grandfather's intentions. He has a regard for the name, and he means to leave all to you, who have every right, unless, indeed, it may be, a legal right. There is one more thing about which I was anxious long ago. You have heard about a portrait of your grandfather that was stolen from the gallery soon after your father's birth? Suspicion fell upon no one in particular. Of course, the stable door was locked after the horse was gone, and we had a night-watchman at Fording for some time; but little stir was made, and I do not believe your grandfather ever put the matter in the hands of the police. It was a spiteful trick, he said; he would not pay whoever had done it the compliment of taking any trouble to recover the portrait. The picture was of himself; he could have another painted any day.

"By whatever means that picture was removed, I have little doubt that your grandfather guessed what had become of it. Does it still exist? Was it stolen? Or did he have it taken away to prevent its being stolen? We must remember that, though we are quite in the dark about these people, there is nothing to prevent their being shown over the house like any other strangers." Then she drew herself up, and folded her hands in her lap, and he saw the great rings flashing on her white fingers. "That is all I know," she finished, "and now let us agree not to mention the subject again, unless one of us should discover anything more. The claim may have lapsed, or may have been compounded, or may never have existed; I think, anyhow, we may feel sure now that no move will be made in your grandfather's lifetime. My advice to you is not to quarrel with him; you had better spend your long vacations away from Fording, and when you leave Oxford you can travel."

So the young man went out from Fording, for a wandering that was to prove half as long as that of Israel in the wilderness. He came home for a flying visit at wide intervals, but he kept up a steady correspondence with his grandmother as long as she lived. Only once, and that in the last letter which he ever received from her, did she allude to the old distasteful discussion. "Up to this very day," she wrote, "I have found out nothing; we may still hope that there is nothing to find out."

In all those long years he consoled himself by the thought that he was bearing expatriation for the honour of the family, that he was absenting himself so that his grandfather might find the less temptation to drag the nebuly coat in the mire. To make a fetish of family was a tradition with Blandamers, and the heir as he set out on his travels, with the romance of early youth about him, dedicated himself to the nebuly coat, with a vow to "serve and preserve" as faithfully as any ever taken by Templar.

Last of all the old lord passed away. He never carried out his threat of disinheritance, but died intestate, and thus the grandson came to his own. The new Lord Blandamer was no longer young when he returned; years of wild travel had hardened his face, and made his heart self-reliant, but he came back as romantic as he went away. For Nature, if she once endows man or woman with romance, gives them so rich a store of it as shall last them, life through, unto the end. In sickness or health, in poverty or riches, through middle age and old age, through loss of hair and loss of teeth, under wrinkled face and gouty limbs, under crow's-feet and double chins, under all the least romantic and most sordid malaisances of life, romance endures to the end. Its price is altogether above rubies; it can never be taken away from those that have it, and those that have it not, can never acquire it for money, nor by the most utter toil—no, nor ever arrive at the very faintest comprehension of it.

The new lord had come back to Fording full of splendid purpose. He was tired of wandering; he would marry; he would settle down and enjoy his own; he would seek the good of the people, and make his great estates an example among landowners. And then within three weeks he had learned that there was a pretender to the throne, that in Cullerne there was a visionary who claimed to be the very Lord Blandamer. He had had this wretched man pointed out to him once in the street—a broken-down fellow who was trailing the cognisance of all the Blandamers in the mud, till the very boys called him Old Nebuly. Was he to fight for land, and house, and title, to fight for everything, with a man like that? And yet it might come to fighting, for within a little time he knew that this was the heir who had been the intangible shadow of his grandmother's life and of his own; and that Martin might stumble any day upon the proof that was lacking. And then death set a term to Martin's hopes, and Lord Blandamer was free again.

But not for long, for in a little while he heard of an old organist who had taken up Martin's role—a meddlesome busybody who fished in troubled waters, for the trouble's sake. What had such a mean man as this to do with lands, and titles, and coats of arms? And yet this man was talking under his breath in Cullerne of crimes, and clues, and retribution near at hand. And then death put a term to Sharnall's talk, and Lord Blandamer was free again.

Free for a longer space, free this time finally for ever; and he married, and marriage set the seal on his security, and the heir was born, and the nebuly coat was safe. But now a new confuter had risen to balk him. Was he fighting with dragon's spawn? Were fresh enemies to spring up from the—The simile did not suit his mood, and he truncated it. Was this young architect, whose very food and wages in Cullerne were being paid for by the money that he, Lord Blandamer, saw fit to spend upon the church, indeed to be the avenger? Was his own creature to turn and rend him? He smiled at the very irony of the thing, and then he brushed aside reflections on the past, and stifled even the beginnings of regret, if, indeed, any existed. He would look at the present, he would understand exactly how matters stood.

Lord Blandamer came back to Fording at nightfall, and spent the hour before dinner in his library. He wrote some business letters which could not be postponed, but after dinner read aloud to his wife. He had a pleasant and well-trained voice, and amused Lady Blandamer by reading from the "Ingoldsby Legends," a new series of which had recently appeared.

Whilst he read Anastasia worked at some hangings, which had been left unfinished by the last Lady Blandamer. The old lord's wife had gone out very little, but passed her time for the most part with her gardens, and with curious needlework. For years she had been copying some moth-eaten fragments of Stuart tapestry, and at her death left the work still uncompleted. The housekeeper had shown these half-finished things and explained what they were, and Anastasia had asked Lord Blandamer whether it would be agreeable to him that she should go on with them. The idea pleased him, and so she plodded away evening by evening, very carefully and slowly, thinking often of the lonely old lady whose hands had last been busied with the same task. This grandmother of her husband seemed to have been the only relation with whom he had ever been on intimate terms, and Anastasia's interest was quickened by an excellent portrait of her as a young girl by Lawrence, which hung in the long gallery. Could the old lady have revisited for once the scene of her labours, she would have had no reason to be dissatisfied with her successor. Anastasia looked distinguished enough as she sat at her work-frame, with the skeins of coloured silks in her lap and the dark-brown hair waved on her high forehead; and a dress of a rich yellow velvet might have supported the illusion that a portrait of some bygone lady of the Blandamers had stepped down out of its frame.

That evening her instinct told her that something was amiss, in spite of all her husband's self-command. Something very annoying must have happened among the grooms, gardeners, gamekeepers, or other dependents; he had been riding about to set the matter straight, and it was no doubt of a nature that he did not care to mention to her.