Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The deadly affinity - Part 1

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I was an only son, and my parents died when I was very young—too young, indeed, to remember them, and I was placed under the guardianship of my uncle, Mark Haughton,—Squire Haughton, as the neighbours round about Haughton Tower used to call him; and Uncle Mark, as he was always known to me.

Haughton Tower—a large, square, battlemented country-house, was situated among deep woods in the north of Yorkshire, and the family of the Haughtons had lived there for many generations. My father and his brother Mark had been brought up together, and they had always been warmly attached to one another. When my father died, the affection of my uncle seemed to be wholly transferred to me. He was an old bachelor, but he treated me exactly as if I had been his son. But still to me, calling up the recollection of my early years, his memory seems less associated with the idea of a parent, than that of a gentle companion and a loving friend. He seemed never happy unless I was by his side, and until I was sixteen years of age, he superintended my physical and mental education himself. He was very fond of field sports, and whether shooting, fishing, or hunting, I was always with him. He was, moreover, tolerably versed in classics and mathematics, which we read and studied together; but his chief delight, within doors, was science, especially natural philosophy and chemistry. It is from this fact that I trace that deep love for science which has been, I may almost say, the ruling passion of my life.

Very few of the neighbours visited at Haughton Tower, and when my uncle went to any of the adjoining country seats, he left me at home. By this means, as I seldom, if ever, came into contact with persons of my own age, I grew up with precocious ideas and tastes, which gained for me, when very young, the title of “old-fashioned,” and as I grew older of “eccentric.”

Thus, then, it had fared with me, until I arrived at the age of sixteen, when my uncle one morning received a letter, which threw our quiet household into a state of excitement. In order to explain this matter, I must refer to an event which happened early in the life of Mark Haughton. He was engaged to be married to a very pretty cousin of his own. Both families were agreeable, and the two young people seemed mutually attached to one another. Why or wherefore it was never understood, but one morning it was discovered that the pretty cousin had eloped with a Captain Maurice,—an officer, whom she had met at a county ball. Her father was extremely angry, and refused to see his daughter, or hear from her again. Poor Mark spoke very little about the matter, but he never said a word against his cousin, nor would he allow any one to do so, in his presence. Afterwards, when the poor runaway had written two or three heart-broken letters home, in which she said that her husband was going to India, and that she was going to accompany him, it was whispered that Uncle Mark had written her a letter, but what it contained, no one save himself and the recipient knew. These events occurred nearly twenty years before I ever heard anything of them, but the letter which now arrived at Haughton Tower seemed likely to bring forward again the circumstances of the past. The letter was dated from an hotel in London, and was written by a Captain Flemming, who had just returned on sick leave from Calcutta. A little girl had been intrusted to his care, and he had brought her to England. He was too unwell to proceed to Mr. Haughton’s residence, but begged him to come up to town at once, and receive his charge. He also enclosed a note, which he expected would explain the matter more clearly.

The enclosed note was very small and was directed in a frail female hand to Mark Haughton. It ran as follows:

Cousin Mark,—When everyone else treated me with harshness and cruelty, you alone, who had been most wronged, looked with pity and kindness upon me. Your letter, with its promise, which I received just before leaving England, is not forgotten. You then said that “if ever it lay in your power to serve me, that I might rely upon you.” That time has come. Major Maurice, my husband, whom misfortune seemed to mark as its own, is no more, and my physician says that I cannot survive him more than a few days longer. All my children are dead except one, my little daughter Mary, and she will now be left an orphan. I intrust her to you. I cannot send her to my father’s house; those who have been so cruel to the daughter, will not be kind to the daughter’s child. I rely on your generosity and goodness of heart, and I know that my hopes will be fully realised when I am dead. Good bye! Cousin Mark. Forgive me, and may Heaven reward you! Mary.

I, who knew nothing of the matter then, was astonished to see tears in my uncle’s eyes, after reading this letter, and still more astonished when I saw him dash them hurriedly away, saying .

“God bless the woman! what on earth made her write to me in this way? It’s impossible—she can’t be dead. But in any case, I must be off to London at once. Take care of her child—of Mary’s child? Of course I will—twenty of them, if there were as many! Here, Charlie, don’t stand gaping at me in that way. See that my portmanteau is packed at once, and tell Thomas to bring the dog-cart round as soon as possible, for I want to catch the afternoon express for the south!”

I obeyed his orders, and soon after the dog-cart was brought round, and Uncle Mark, enveloped in great coats and mufflers, took his seat.

“Charlie,” said he, leaning over, and speaking to me, just before starting. “I leave you as housekeeper until I return in a few days, and look here, Charlie, my boy, I’ll probably bring home with me a little sister for you. See that you are kind to her, you young dog, or I’ll pack you off, bag and baggage!”

“Never fear, uncle,” I said. “Good bye!” and away went the dog-cart, my uncle waving farewell to me, until I lost sight of him far down the avenue.

I thought over the matter of this little sister that my uncle had promised to bring home, but I could not realise the subject. I determined to wait patiently till he returned. After he had been absent for a week, I received a letter from him, in which he said that he would be still longer detained in town, and that he would write and tell me when he should come back. I had never been left so much to myself before, and I rather enjoyed my freedom. September was well advanced, and I went every day with one of the keepers, and knocked about the partridges to my heart’s content.

Another week, or more, had passed away, and I had been all day on the moors, and with my gun on my shoulder was taking a short cut through the garden to reach the house, when I was suddenly startled by an unusual sight. A little girl dressed in mourning, with a very pale face, very black hair, and very large, soft black eyes, met me, as I turned a corner of the garden-path. She carried in one hand a small bunch of newly-gathered blue flowers, which she was looking at admiringly, but, on hearing my footsteps, she stopped and we faced one another. I did not know which way to look, for I was very shy, and she seemed to scrutinise me so closely, that I believe I blushed. She was so different from any child or girl that I had ever seen before, that I was very much struck with her appearance. The buxom country lasses, and the dashing young amazons, whom I had seen and admired at the cover side, presented a strong contrast to the pale, fragile little form before me.

“I suppose you are cousin Charlie?” she said, after a slight pause. She spoke in such a sweet, musical childish voice that I seemed somehow to have known it from infancy, and my heart appeared to respond to it at once. At the same time, she held out to me a tiny little hand that reminded me of some rare tropical shell with its delicate pink and white tints. I took it in my own, saying, bashfully:

“Charlie is my name, and you,—you are my new sister. Am I right?”

“No,—all my brothers and sisters are dead, and you are to be my cousin Charlie, and I am your cousin Mary, or Polly, as papa used to call me. You may call me which name you like.”

“Cousin Polly, then—I am very glad to see you at Haughton Tower, and I hope you will be happy, but I fear you will find it dull.”

“Don’t be afraid about me, I am never dull when people are kind, and among these beautiful woods, and in this garden with its lovely flowers, how could any one be dull, cousin? I am so fond of blue flowers,—what is the name of this one, with its long clusters of blue helmets? Are they not just like helmets?”

“We sometimes call it Juno’s chariot. See! when I pull away this petal, it is exactly like a fairy chariot drawn by two swans.”

“Oh, how pretty! What a pity it is that it has no scent.”

“Very few poisonous plants have any agreeable perfume, Cousin Polly, and that flower has another name,—Monkshood, and it contains a deadly poison.”

“How dreadful; but this other pretty blue blossom, with the golden heart, I am sure that is harmless—is it not?”

“Wrong again, Polly, that one is more hurtful than the other, and is known by scarcely any other name than the Deadly Nightshade.”

She trembled from head to foot, and threw away the little bunch, saying:

“Surely, cousin, your English flowers are not all poisonous?”

“Oh dear no, Cousin Polly; come with me, and I will soon gather you some that won’t shock you.”

We seemed to be on friendly terms at once, and wandered about for a considerable time among the gardens and shrubberies, which were very extensive. She was rather difficult to please, but some wild hare-bells and forget-me-nots, together with a moss-rose, pleased her extremely. We were still strolling about when we heard the dinner-bell sound from the house.

“Oh dear me, Cousin Charlie, what have I been thinking about! Uncle told me to come out and try to find you, and to bring you back immediately. What will he say?—will he be angry?”

“It’s quite plain, Polly, that you don’t know Uncle Mark. He will only be too glad to see us. I am the most to blame, for I am sure he is anxious to see me, and in the search for your flowers I quite forgot all about him. Let us go back to the house at once.”

I remember that, at that time, I thought the trembling fit which came over her, when I pointed out the baneful nature of Monkshood and Nightshade, showed an amount of nervous susceptibility belied by her self-possession. But when I learned afterwards that her poor father, Major Maurice, had put an end to himself by poison, it seemed perfectly to explain her emotion.

My uncle was delighted to see me, and especially to find that Mary and I were such good friends. He seemed never tired of gazing at the black-eyed little girl. I fancy that he saw in her features some traces of her whom he had loved,—long ago.

She was not more than twelve or thirteen years of age, but knowing that she was the only “lady” in the establishment, she soon began to assume quite a matronly air. It was amusing to see the dignified air with which she took the head of the table at breakfast and tea-time, besides superintending the housekeeping, in her little way. Uncle Mark always treated her as if she were grown up,—listened to her with deference, and resigned his bunch of keys to her with an air at once of courtesy and pleasure.

Her presence produced a delightful pleasure for both of us, especially for me, who had never mingled in any female society. It was pleasant to listen to her musical voice while detailing her reminiscences of Calcutta and the East,—of strange tropical trees and flowers, and of the dusky Bengalese. Then, again, she would tell us of her passage to England, and of the ideas she had formed of her new home, of Uncle Mark, and myself.

We got at last into a regular routine, and it seemed as if Cousin Polly had always been with us, and that we could not do without her.

Some months elapsed before Uncle Mark explained why he had been detained so long in London. He had been making arrangements for Mary Maurice’s education. A governess had been engaged, who would soon arrive, and there was an excellent school at the neighbouring town of Hetherington, where she could go for other masters. My Uncle had also taken into account that since I had been so long at home, it was time that I went out and saw a little of the world. Full of these thoughts he had fortunately met with an old college acquaintance who was desirous of going on the continent for a year or two, and anxious to get a pupil to accompany him. The two friends soon came to terms, and I now learned that, in a fortnight’s time, I was expected at the house of my uncle’s acquaintance—the Rev. Mr. Ellis—in London.

I was delighted with the news, and hardly knew how to control my excitement. Cousin Polly could not make it out at all. She could not see anything, she said, to be so pleased about. Surely I was happy where I was. And then she opened her large dark eyes and looked with a strange wistful gaze at me.

In due time I left Haughton Tower, and joined Mr. Ellis in London. I was amazed and positively enchanted with the town, never having seen any large town before, and, after a month’s pleasant sojourn, we started for Paris, and from thence we went, by way of Brussels, up the Rhine, and from there into Italy.

We remained on the continent for two years, during which time I contrived to learn that England was not the whole world, and the hard angles of my character were knocked off. I heard regularly from my uncle, and sometimes I got a short note from Cousin Polly.

Time passed away, and the period at length arrived for my return. How strange it seemed to me after mingling in the busy world, after seeing so many different countries, after hearing so many different languages, to return to the little family circle at Haughton Tower. Still it was a relief, after the continual change of scenes and faces, to think that once more I was about to gaze on the well-known and well-loved haunts, and to meet once more the well-remembered smile and kindly voice of Uncle Mark.

It was close upon Christmas when I arrived at home. Home! what a cheering warmth there is about the very name! It was evening when I drew up at the hall-door, and my uncle met me on the steps. His face beamed with welcome, and although a little greyer than when I last saw him, he looked still the same dear old kind uncle I had left.

“My dear boy I’m so glad to see you,” he said, after drawing me into the comfortable, well-lighted study. “Come in, Polly and I have done nothing but talk about you for the last month or two, and, Cousin Polly—— Bless me, where’s the little puss gone to? She has been watching for you, with me, on the steps for I don’t know how long. Polly! Polly!”

And away went Uncle Mark to seek her. He was not long in bringing her into the room. But what a change had taken place. The little girl had grown up into a woman, seemingly. The long thick jet-black hair I recognised, and the dark eyelashes which she never raised; but the change of climate and the bracing country-air had brought such a glow of health into her cheeks that it was no wonder that I scarcely knew her again.

Before the evening was over, however, we were all on a more easy footing. I had much to tell, and was spokesman nearly all the night. Somehow or other, although I addressed my uncle whenever I spoke, I felt that I was speaking to Cousin Polly. Whenever I looked towards her, thinking that she was looking at me, down went the eyelashes again, and the faintest suspicion of a blush flashed across her face. Ah, how beautiful she looked, sitting low down in an easy-chair by the genial fire on that quiet winter’s night. How deeply did her beauty sink into my heart, and how dearly I love its remembrance now that many—many years are gone!

I found that my uncle did not now go out as frequently in the fields as he was in the habit of doing formerly; not that he enjoyed his favourite sports less, but that he enjoyed the presence and sunny smiles of Mary Maurice more. When therefore I became once more a member of the household of Haughton Tower, I found, with great pleasure, that my uncle devoted a considerable portion of his leisure time to the pursuit of science. He had a room which was fitted up purposely for his studies, but it was only for experiments of a very limited character. Uncle Mark pursued science more as a relaxation or a pleasure, than for any specific object to be attained. He dipped into the surface of this abstruse subject, and skimmed over that, only extracting the little sweets of speculative philosophy as he passed. I was differently constituted, and always wished to carry out any experiments that we commenced to the end. Often when he had started some new project, I still continued endeavouring, with our limited means to pursue the original idea. Although my uncle confessed his inability to follow in the same path, still he did not conceal his admiration for my patience and perseverance.

Seeing the pleasure and interest which I took in the subjects which we had been studying, he advised me to go to London for a time, and there add more fully to my knowledge by experimenting in the best laboratories, and by attending lectures by the most eminent men of science. I was, of course, charmed with the proposal, and although it was only six months since I had returned from abroad, it was soon arranged that I had to go up to London on the earliest possible opportunity. The son of a neighbouring gentleman had gone up to town a short time before. He was about to commence the study of medicine, and arrangements were made that I had to occupy rooms along with him. Fred Holdsworth was a light-hearted merry young fellow, about two years younger than myself, and with whom I had struck up a slight acquaintance in the hunting-field. I felt pleased to think that he was to be my companion.

There was consequently nothing but confusion and bustle for some time at Haughton Tower, for everyone was making preparations for the departure of “the young squire,” as I was called.

All the time that I had been at home, Cousin Polly and I had been remarkably good friends. It was so pleasant, as we sometimes said to one another, to have a brotherly and sisterly feeling towards one another. But we were mostly silent,—provokingly and annoyingly silent,—after making this assertion. When it was fixed that I had to go to London for another indefinite period, Cousin Polly grew unusually quiet, and sometimes when I met her gaze I recognised the same wistful, inquiring look in her eyes, that I remembered on my last departure. But now it made my face tingle, and as I looked, Polly turned away hurriedly, and was, or pretended to be, very busy with some preparations for my departure.

The day arrived when I was to start. It was a lovely afternoon in June, and as I was all packed up and ready for starting in the evening, I wished to take a stroll over the grounds before leaving. I sought out Cousin Polly, and asked her to accompany me as usual, but she was so busy with arrangements for my comfort in travelling, that she could not come then, but said that she would meet me in a short while, promising to join me at a favourite seat of ours, on a knoll, where three or four beach trees stood, outside of the garden, in the park.

I walked along leisurely through the grounds, taking a farewell look at the gardens, green-houses and arbours, and then went out into the park, where I lay down on the grass, under the shade of the beech trees where I had promised to meet Mary.

How calm and peaceful everything was. One or two lazy snow-white clouds flecked the clear blue sky above. There was not enough wind even to rustle the leaves overhead. The park stretched down the slope from where I lay, shadowless, until it reached the deep, dark wood which surrounded it about half-a-mile away, and the many-leaved wood itself seemed motionless in the still, summer air. The only sound that broke the silence was the murmur of a little brook which wandered round the bend of the neighbouring garden hedge. As I lay in the chequered shadow, lulled by the stillness of the scene and the musical murmur of the rippling stream, dreamy thoughts and fancies passed through my mind. How easy and smooth had the course of my life been, and how promising was the aspect of the future. When I came of age I should be in the possession of wealth. No trouble, no grief, no pain had ever crossed my path within my recollection, and my prospects were as bright and sunny as the scene around me. I was now about to pursue my favourite study, not for the sake of gain or ambition, but for the love of science alone. I longed to know more of the hidden secrets of Nature. I thirsted to drink a deep draught from that well at which I had hitherto only sipped. And yet, I thought, if I should make some great discovery,—if my name should be added to the roll of fame,—if it should be so. The murmur of the stream fell softer and softer on my senses and I fell asleep.

I was awakened by a sense of the air being perfumed, and a gentle, soft kiss was impressed upon my lips. At first I was scarcely conscious where I was; but I soon recognised the scene, and on looking round I saw Mary Maurice sitting by my side. She had taken off her hat, and her face was turned away from me, but I could see that her cheek and neck were suffused with a deep, rosy glow.

“Polly,” I said, while a peculiar choking sensation prevented me from saying anything more. There was no answer, and still the little head, with the black, clustering hair, was turned away from me.

“Cousin Polly, you kissed me!” at length I blundered out.

Now the blushing face was turned towards me, and there were bright tears glancing in her beautiful eyes.

“Oh, don’t Charlie—don’t say anything more! I thought you were asleep—I did, indeed, cousin.”

Need I go on—need I tell how in that still summer scene, our hearts told their own secrets, and we vowed that we would love one another for ever and for ever.

As we walked back slowly to the house, she gathered some forget-me-nots, and gave them to me, saying:

“Take these, Charlie; you remember you gave me some the first time that we met. I have them still; they are safely locked up in my writing-desk. Now I want to say something to you that will make you think me very silly, perhaps. Do you recollect that at our first meeting you told me that the flowers which I had gathered were poisonous?”

“Perfectly,—what about them?”

“Well, there is something in my heart,—don’t laugh at me,—that tells me now, that you must beware of poisons. Pray do not interrupt me,—I know that your studies will bring you in constant contact with poisonous substances, but it is not that,—something in my inmost heart tells me that your future, your fate will be intimately linked and associated with poisons. Forgive me if what I have said seems idle fancy; but I cannot tell you how I have longed to warn you. I seem to have been prompted to do so by a power stronger than I could control. I know you will forgive me, and promise to—to beware.”

I did promise; and I sealed the promise with a last fond kiss.

When we arrived at the house, I did not inform my uncle of what had taken place, but I am certain that he suspected something, from the change in our manner. However, I made no sign until just before leaving, when, in bidding him good-bye, I said:

“Uncle Mark, take care of Cousin Polly—take care of her for me!

He took me by both hands, and gazed steadfastly in my face for a few seconds, and then fairly burst into tears.

“Heaven bless you, my dear boy,” he said. “I have longed for many a day to hear this news. Don’t stay long away, Charlie, but come back soon and make her your wife.”

In an hour or two afterwards I was in the railway carriage, hurrying on to London, and as the night grew darker and darker, between pauses of sleeping and waking, I fancied that ever and anon I heard Mary’s gentle voice whispering in my ear that strange warning—“Beware of poisons! Beware of poisons!”