Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The lake at Yssbrooke

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THE LAKE AT YSSBROOKE.

BY THE AUTHOR OF MIGNONETTE.

 

I have often fancied that nature meant me for a painter, not because I have a taste for pictures, or the smallest talent in the way of design, but because the chief epochs of my life have always presented themselves to me through a halo of colour. There is, so to speak, a streak of a different shade dashed across each of my reminiscences. As it happens, my calling is that of a conveyancer, and my daily habits have been for five and twenty years moulded by contact with the driest, dustiest, and most prosaic details; but, for all that, the past still continues to present itself to me under the guise of a series of pictures. A quarter of a century of attendant terms, and contingent remainders; of long drawn out titles and undiscoverable fee-simples, has failed to cure me of this apparently dreamy tendency which I have come at last to recognise as an inherent feature of my existence. Everything is colour to me—blue or black or green or azure; and yet I would not have my readers suppose me a spooney follow. I never was in love after the fashion with which men love in books. I am married, and I love my wife; but I wedded her more because she was a desirable than a specially attractive person, and more because I thought she would make me a good helpmeet, than on any score of personal loveliness. My marriage and its concomitant circumstances are about the only part of my life which is to me devoid of colour. I can afford to look back upon them with little of interest. Their results have been so welded into the progress of my daily life, that I care not to dream over them, or at all events I never do. It is widely different with other portions of my experiences. I recall often enough, against my own will, too, the day when Rhoda Gray committed suicide down at Purley, and her midnight funeral in the old churchyard; for there they buried her, though no one read a line or said a prayer, aloud, at least, over her. The cold, dark moaning night, the torches flaring thickly and smokily through the damp mist, and lighting ever and anon some village face; the muffled tread of many—all come back to me through a dark jumble of black and red, and not quite red either, say rather something thick, foggy, and lurid, like the splashes of colour in Rembrandt's pictures, terribly dark, and yet terribly visible. So again of the day after. It was Christmas time: an iron frost had bound up the earth. The very grass was black; its blades stood stiff and dingy out of the worm~hills. Nature seemed dead. A few murky crows flapped their presence over the fields; but life had to all appearance died out, or was to be found only in the red berries which decorated the tavern windows, or the few straggling children casting pebbles on the ice of the village pond. But I must not dwell on this. Some day perhaps I may have occasion to recount that sad story. Other purpose is before me now. I must say a word about a leaden tableau in my life, a certain slate-coloured chapter of my worldly experiences, which in my memory seems to bring back no sunlight, no gleam at all, but the horizon of a morning portending probable rain, and yet not rain positively: one of those skies which close upon a beholder, and make him fancy that it will never be fine again.

Such a sky seems to hang over my reminiscences of Yssbrooke. I have tried but I cannot call to mind, that during my visits there, though they extended over some few years, the sun ever shone. I was happy there, I believe; but the remains left by them recall no joy and certainly no sunlight. No cloud encumbers their horizon until the time of which I am about to speak: but no light, save that of a doubtful sky illumines them; a polar atmosphere, in short, devoid of a sensation of frost.

My parents were kept by the times in India: I was put to school at Harrow. At sixteen I spent my holidays at Yssbrooke. Yssbrooke belonged to my mother's brother; at least he occupied it, and his executors at his death disposed of it. There was a story about a trust, but that is neither here nor there. My vacations were, in most cases, passed there. It was a dull, odd, profitless sort of place, with gables of any age, that never seemed to grow older; large unthinned woods, and farmyards that never appeared either to thrive or to fall into decay; cattle grazing with a hopeless aspect on cold looking pasture land, and thin crops of grain, which would have driven a farmer of these go-a-head times to suicide or the bottle. The whole establishment seemed but an abortive display of prosperity, which left its cold shade upon every person and thing brought within its compass; not that we were any of us habitually miserable, that I remember. The society at Yssbrooke was undoubtedly of a grave kind, but I do not think that it was distasteful to me on that account. I carried with me such schoolboy elasticity as was consistent with my temperament. It was not much, perhaps, for I was ordinarily a dreamy boy, and may have been more in my element in my uncle's domain than would most of my school-fellows; but, on the whole, I was happy there. For was it not home to me, and at home who is not happy? My uncle had a daughter. She was some six years my senior; which circumstance, combined with a certain native superiority which made me feel myself immeasurably her inferior, probably checked my development of an attachment that I have since thought was waiting to break out on my side. Tall, lithesome, with earnest hazel eyes, and soft silken brown hair, she could not have been more fascinating had she been an angel of beauty.

One could never look in her face without seeming to read the depth and fervour of her simple heart. A winning though retiring candour pervaded her whole person. Quiet and subdued in manner, she was perfectly open and frank in all she said and did. She inspired confidence with the first glance of her eye, and alas, as I have reason to know, she yielded it but too readily and fearlessly when it was sought by others. Well, I was not myself in love with her. In her eyes I was but as a boy. "Cecil, remember," she would say to me, "that you are baby, you goose," and I never had the hardihood to dispute that truth, nor could I make up my mind to be offended at its enunciation. For she was so taking—the tones of her voice were so soft and true, and her hair—well I may be excused for referring to it again, for have I not a small piece of it before me now?

But there was another reason for my not presuming upon hopes, against which my youth was itself a sufficient impediment.

Edith Gersom, as years drew on, yielded her heart to some one else. I say, as years drew on,—because when the affair commenced, I never knew. I have a sort of idea that the fact rather crept upon me, than that it was communicated to me as an actual occurrence that had taken place. I know that I disliked the favoured party even at the time when he could have been no more than a pretender. Not that I had any other ground for my antipathy than the instinct which is more or less inherent in the rest of mankind. Eldred (that was his name) was, to look at, tall, dark, handsome, and unobjectionable, and withal studiously civil to me. Edith, too, tried to interest my sympathies in his favour.

"Cecil, he is so clever and learned," she would say, "and he does so desire to be great. Oh! cousin, if you could learn from him!"

Thank God, I never did. The only deed for which he rendered himself famous, being the betrayal of the purest and warmest heart that ever beat.

The engagement between Eldred and my cousin hung on for, I should say, about two years. One other person in the household, besides myself, did not look upon the gentleman with the favour which he undoubtedly contrived to receive from the rest. That other person was Colonel Gersom, my uncle. And he, I think, was more against the match than against the man with whom it was to be contracted. What his exact scruples were, neither of the lovers would say. He was a grave, thoughtful, reserved man, morbidly sensitive on religious matters, and I have sometimes fancied that something on this score stood in the way of that final consent for which the young people were waiting, and which was, in the end, rather abruptly and harshly refused. That this refusal was ever distinctively anticipated in the earlier stages of the transaction I do not believe. Else why should my uncle permit this man to visit the house, unchecked, during so long a period, and the two to be thrown together in unreserved intercourse in rides and drives, and in other ways, on all occasions?

This licence was more dangerous, perhaps, for a girl of Edith's temperament, circumstanced as she was then, than it would have been for another. Trustful and confiding as she was herself, she had found, during her young life, but few receptacles for those feelings for which an ardent, passionate nature most craves.

Her mother had died when she was a mere child. Her father, though treating her always with a sort of sombre kindness, never had her confidence. She had no playfellow, except myself, and after Eldred became her accepted lover, there seemed, on some points, almost a distance between us. Besides, I was constantly away, and at last it appeared to me that my sweet cousin had bestowed on the one centre of affection the entire tendrils of her heart, and lived and breathed for none other.

 

I was just seventeen years of age when I returned to Yssbrooke to spend my last Harrow vacation. In another six months I was to go up to Cambridge. It was summer time, but the weather was gloomy and cheerless—dull also, though not rainy. Well do I remember the depression of spirits with which I drove by the edges of the lake through the park. The water looked so black and dull that my very heart seemed to shiver at the sight of it. This was the more remarkable as of all spots connected with Yssbrooke, I loved the lake most. It had been to me a constant source of recreation. I had fishing from it in spring time, and many's the summer-night I had spent musingly on its broad surface. The wild fowl upon its sedgy banks afforded many a fair day's sport, and in quieter moments the walks around ministered to my brooding and eccentric humour. But now there was a black meaning in its dull waters, half fretted by the fitful gusts of wind which swept across it, that filled me with foreboding. My companion, too, who had met me with the country trap at the neighbouring market-town, an old domestic as loquacious, on ordinary occasions, as anything connected with Yssbrooke could be, displayed a taciturnity which did not detract from my uneasiness. The questions I had put to him on the road respecting the news, the state of the crops, the welfare of the estate, and the health of the different members of the family, had either been answered evasively or put aside as not apprehended. It was then, with a distrust I could not master, that we approached the house, gladly, to my mind, for if there was anything amiss, Edith would clear up the mystery, or in default of her, old Markham, a quondam nurse, and later companion of my young cousin, with whom I had always been a favourite, and whose gossiping propensities I had come sometimes to regard as a virtue amid the prevailing closeness of the inmates of Yssbrooke. Not to be prolix, I may at once come to what she did tell me—it was not for some hours after my arrival, nor until the stillness of the household, the absence of my uncle till close upon nightfall, and other circumstances had convinced me that something very serious had fallen out. Then the truth was told me by the lips of the old nurse, in sentences which seem as fresh and distinct to me now as on the night when my thirsty ears greedily drank them in, but which I would not put down intelligibly here, if I were to try for a lifetime. The worst part of the news, and that which admitted of no dispute or qualification, consisted of the abrupt flight of my sweet sister-cousin two days before. The circumstances attending the flight were not so intelligible.

It had been remarked, several weeks previously, that something was wrong between her and Eldred. How this was, or what was the ground of this estrangement, must ever remain a matter of conjecture. That my uncle had, by this time, refused to consent to their marriage except on terms which the lover was too poor or too haughty to accept, came later to my ears. That Edith should feel this acutely, and that the result, after all that had passed, would go nearly to break her heart, I knew her too well to doubt; but why the affection existing between them should be impaired by the result was a question much more hard to solve. There is an awful cold doubt clinging to my heart which I have in vain endeavoured to clear up. I hate to recall it, and why should I? After my uncle's ultimatum was passed, Eldred did not at first cease all communication with his mistress or with Yssbrooke. It was said she saw him often. That more than once they parted in anger, and that, on one occasion, she left him in a passion of tears. At last about a fortnight before my arrival, it was asserted that he had left the country. The Colonel received the news with apparent satisfaction, though he said nothing to his child or those about him. Edith, on the contrary, heard it with a look of terror far more striking than one which grief could have expressed, and for days saw no one but her nurse. Grim and reserved as was the Lord of Yssbrooke himself, he probably thought that condolence would only probe her distress, and for the days that succeeded she preserved a hopeless apathy, varied at times by fits of restlessness, and a vague dread of approaching inevitable horror. One afternoon she disappeared. Two entire days had elapsed since she left the house in her ordinary walking-apparel, without any reliable trace of her being forthcoming. She took no clothes or change of raiment for a journey, and her last act was the destruction of every letter or writing she had received from her lover, as well as of every trace which could bring him back to memory. She was gone and so was he, and up to the present moment they were, in fact, as if neither of them had ever been.

And what said my uncle to all this? I was mad to know what his hopes of her recovery were, and how he bore the disaster. On the first point I was enlightened that evening. He returned to Yssbrooke, with the idea impressed upon his mind that his child was hiding from him. He had been to a distant market town on the highroad to Liverpool. The country people had given him a clue, or a fanciful clue furnished by a post-chaise and a dark night. That the clue stopped there, only proved she was in hiding. The departure of Eldred from the country he regarded only as a feint. Her long depression during a fortnight, a feint also; and her systematic destruction of her private papers at the last moment, as proof of a scheme having a definite living purpose as its end. Nobody tried to undeceive him, for nobody had any more plausible solution to offer, and as long as there was a grain of hope it would be cruel to suggest the reverse. But the rector of our parish, I found out afterwards, thought differently: he felt that either Edith was close by, or further off than human aid could reach. Having some influence with the Colonel, he ventured to suggest, on the night of my arrival, that the woods, the farm cottages, and even the outlying thickets, should be searched. "Why," he pointed out, "should she have left home without clothing or means, if she meant to go a journey? Why, if your refusal of Mr. Eldred was only contingent, should she go at all? Of what good would the subterfuge of his emigration be, when by simply marrying her at once clandestinely he could take her with him? You say he refused your conditions?—by eloping with her, he at once accepts them, unless—what you will not believe?" No—the Colonel will not believe anything like that: he was satisfied it was a pre-arranged scheme; and perhaps the rector thought he had some better reasons for the supposition than he cared to mention, and did not press him further.

How did my uncle bear the shock in company? His conduct this night shall tell. To explain it, I must mention that about this time,—I am writing of what happened five-and-forty years ago,—there had been a great religious revival in the land. This revival has since been denominated the Evangelical Movement. It had, I believe, its good effects; but, like all sudden ebullitions of the sort, it had its extreme aspect. An example of this was furnished by the habits of Colonel Gersom and his intimate friends. For eighteen months previous to the moment of which I have last been speaking, he had become, so to speak, an ascetic The idea upon him, which communicated itself to a considerable knot in the neighbourhood, was, that God was best propitiated by acts of retirement, sorrowful presence, and by grave repellant bearing towards the outer world. Melancholy réunions were consequently instituted at Yssbrooke, which were attended by all the converts to this view; mostly males, though there were a few of the gentler sex. The diversions on these occasions were of a most eccentric kind. After prayer and tea, the party placed themselves round a table, and proceeded to play at a serious game I denominated "Crumbs." The mode of amusement was this:—A player was seized with a Scriptural idea. Writing it upon a slip of paper, of which many were at hand, he threw it into a large jar which stood on the table. Another followed as conversation was carried on, and so on. As the process was repeated nightly, and as at first the ideas flowed with a fertility which must have been very gratifying to the host, the jar was always tolerably stocked. On a signal, a species of tombolo ensued: certain of the crumbs were thrown out; the first person who felt himself inspired made a grab, or as it was more correctly termed a "pick," and a lecture, or rather series of interlocutory sermons followed, upon the text so drawn, which, with others, more or less diversified the evening until it was time for psalms and prayer again. To this amusement my uncle had rigidly adhered during my last two vacations. I find no fault with him for it, nor with those who joined with him in it, whatever distaste I may have felt at the time. I merely mention it to show how it affected the circumstances of which I am speaking, and of the temper in which my unhappy uncle regarded the loss of his daughter. I expected, of course, that on this night at least we should have to "pick no crumbs,"—that at all events the hours would be devoted to mourning and to silence, though a silence of wretchedness. Never was I more mistaken. The usual crumb-pickers assembled. There was the usual grave shake of the hand, the long prayer, the tombolo, and the sermons by those who felt themselves "moved." In the midst of it an express actually arrived with news respecting the fearful circumstance which held the household in suspense. The "crumbs" were at the moment on the table. With a feeling of instinct, each hand seemed stayed from grasping for them. My uncle, however, quietly squeezed the express paper in his hands, with the earnest adjuration to his next neighbour, "Pick, sir, pray pick."

But this could not last. The next day had gone and no tidings, and the next, and my uncle seemed at last to be giving in. The whole neighbourhood had been ransacked, every friend and acquaintance that Edith had ever possessed, had been applied to—magisterial aid had been evoked—but there were neither tidings nor trace of the missing girl. The fifth day from her loss was a Sunday. Early in the forenoon the friends and co-religionists of Colonel Gersom anxiously thronged the dining-room for intelligence. I was there, terribly sick at heart, for I had slept little since my arrival, and having contributed my exertions also for intelligence over the country, I was exhausted bodily as well as mentally. By degrees it was mentioned that the Colonel was ill, and the body of persons present diminished, from motives of delicacy, to some half-dozen. I waited however, mechanically, I think, for I had nowhere else to go, and I felt an irresistible attraction in remaining in the company of others whose thoughts were riveted on the same subject as my own. I conversed, however, with none. With my head leant partly on my hand, I sat in an angle of the room, my eyes resting on a large bowl, or rather glass trough of water, containing gold-fish, which stood in a recess hard by a window. It was before the days of "Aquaria," and the one before me would in these times have been thought insignificant. It was a curiosity however then, and the rare fish within it, had been especial pets of poor lost Edith. As I looked on them this fact came before me in full force, and it seemed to me as if the present still aspect of the little silvery finned tribe within had been unchanged since my arrival. Alive they all certainly were, and all placed differently; but each appeared to have one golden-rimmed eye on me earnestly, seriously, unwaveringly, while their gills and fins flapped mourningly, and in measured shake, as if upbraiding my want of vigour in this grievous strait. The thought afflicted me so much that I was turning my eyes away when my uncle entered. He pressed the hands of one or two friends in a weary manner, meant however to be grateful, and begged the rector who had entered the room with him, to explain his wishes on a point near his heart. They were, that those present should, before they separated for divine service, join in prayer in that spot in behalf of the one sole hope left him on earth. He could not leave the house, but it would be comfort to him to feel that they had in his company offered their united supplications to the Being of all mercy for help in his present visitation. There and then we all knelt together. The rector spoke—no other save by murmurs—earnestly and affectingly did he touch on the blow that had fallen on the house, and according to the mode of faith then in vogue, he not only prayed, but asked for some direct token of the lost girl's fate. I have no right, however, nor do I pretend here to complain of the form. The speaker's words were from the heart, and they went to my heart, and when we rose to our feet my face, at least, was bathed in tears. Still I felt calmer, and more tranquil, and save that I could not keep my eyes from the fish in the glass tank, I certainly was more composed. It is then from no excitement of mind that I came to behold that which was vouchsafed to the astonished eyes of all that little party.

When the persons present rose from prayer, they were grouped in a sort of semi-circle, looking towards the vase of water, the rector and my uncle being alone with their backs towards it. On a sudden, one of the party raised a cry, and the eyes of all, the two persons last mentioned included, turned in the direction of his gaze. Standing by the vase stood Edith—so plain that I for one, could have vouched for her being there in life. She wore the dress in which she had left home, but it seemed drenched as if by exposure to the weather. On her head was nothing; but her hair on one side, dripping and dishevelled, hung unkempt upon her shoulder, on the other it seemed matted, and held to its place by some means which I could not discern. Her face and look was stretched towards my uncle, and were for him alone. The countenance was tearful, and seemed anxiously to bespeak his attention, as if to some action she was about to perform. I just remember his giving a groan, bowing his head now, in a moment, more aged than it had been a moment before, and raising it with outstretched hand respectfully again as if in obedience to her demand. Then did Edith deliberately before us all dip her small hand into the vase, and raise it high, while the water fell palpably splashing from her palm into it. Again she dipped, and again repeated the action, and this time a sad, weeping look o'erspread her features—again the water fell—the fish sprang round at the sound, and, covering her features madly with her hands, she disappeared.

I had no time to think, or cry, or breathe. My uncle, with arm uplifted to heaven, cried out at once, "The lake!"

 
*****
 

Beneath that sad sheet of water where I, in my youth, had spent so many happy hours, hard by the sedge, the sight of which but a few days before had spread such terror in my breast, the lifeless form of Edith Gersom was discovered. Dank, wet, and limp was her dress, for she had been there many days, and tangled and dishevelled one side of her silken hair, as in the room wherein she betokened to us all her sad fate; while the locks on the other side, still close fixed to their place, told how closely her weary head had clenched the muddy sedgy pillow of its choice. Hand upon heart, sad smile upon lip, weary half-closed eyelid, told even then the history of her life. It was all love, and trust, and betrayal, and despair.

In the foreground, the shore of a sedgy lake; beyond it, an open carriage drawn by a dark horse, with two people in it looking at the lake apprehensively. The light is dim, the sky oppressive.

Many years have elapsed since the events of which I have spoken occurred, and of those who were witnesses of that sad scene all but three have gone to their resting-place. But the other six lived long enough to enable them, again and again throughout years, to compare with us their impressions of what we all saw. Yssbrooke has long since passed into other hands, and the girl-ghost of the Lake at Yssbrooke has, with additions and variations, become a story to amuse festive parties, or to frighten silly children. I need not say that with such it is regarded as idle gossip. Nevertheless, I was not many years ago at a gathering in that neighbourhood where the circumstances were mentioned more as they strictly occurred. The appearance of the dead girl was scouted as idle talk. To the dismay of the company assembled, there was another present who could with me lay his hand upon his heart, and say: "We were present, and we saw her!"

Ernest R. Seymour.