Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 18
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXXV. “I SEE’D A DEAD MAN!”
Jan Verner was turning in at his own door—the surgery—at a swinging pace. Jan’s natural pace was a deliberate one; but Jan found so much to do, now he was alone in the business, that he had no resource but to move at the rate of a steam-engine. Otherwise, he would never have got through his day’s work. Jan had tried one assistant, who had proved to be more plague than profit, and Jan was better without him. Master Cheese, promoted now to tail-coats and turn-up collars, was coming on, and could attend to trifling cases. Master Cheese wished to be promoted also to “Mister” Cheese: but he remained obstinately excessively short, and people would still call him “Master.” He appeared to grow in breadth instead of height, and underwent, in consequence, a perpetual inward mortification. Jan would tell him he should eat less and walk more; but the advice was not taken.
Jan Verner was turning into the surgery at a swinging pace, and came in violent contact with Master Cheese, who was coming out at another. Jan rubbed his chest, and Cheese his head.
“I say, Jan,” said he, “can’t you look where you’re going?”
“Can’t you look?” returned Jan. “Where are you off to?”
“There’s something the matter at Duff’s. About a dozen came here in a body, wanting you. Dan Duff was dying, Bob says.”
Jan turned his eyes on Bob, the surgery-boy. Bob answered the look:
“It’s what they said, sir. They said as Dan Duff was a-dying and a-frothing at the mouth. It’s about five minutes ago, sir.”
“Did you go over?” asked Jan of Cheese. “I saw a crowd round the door.”
“No I didn’t. I am going now. I was in-doors, having my supper.”
“Then you need not trouble yourself,” returned Jan. “Stop where you are, and digest your supper.”
He, Jan, was speeding off, when a fresh deputation arrived. Twenty anxious faces at the least, in a commotion, all their tongues going together.
“Dan was frothing dreadful, and his legs was twitchin’ like one in the convulsions.”
“What has caused it?” asked Jan. “I saw him well enough an hour or two ago.”
“He see a dead man, sir; as it’s said. We can’t come to the bottom of it, ’cause of his not answering no questions. He be too bad, that he be.”
“He did see a dead man,” put in Polly Dawson, who made one of the deputation, and was proud of being able to add her testimony to the asserted fact. “Leastways, he said he did. I was a-buying some silk, sir, in at Mother Duff’s shop, and Susan Peckaby was in there too, she was, a-talking rubbish about her white donkey, when Dan flounders in upon us in a state not to be told, a-frightening of us dreadful, and a-smashing in the winder with his arm. And he said he’d seen a dead man.”
Jan could not make sense of the tale. There was nobody lying dead in Deerham that he knew of. He pushed the crowd round the door right and left to get space to enter. The shop was pretty full already, but numbers pushed in after Jan. Dan had been carried into the kitchen at the back of the shop, and was laid upon the floor, a pillow under his head. The kitchen was more crowded than the shop; there was not breathing space; and room could hardly be found for Jan.
The shop was Mrs. Duff’s department. If she chose to pack it full of people to the ceiling, it was her affair: but Jan made the kitchen, where the boy lay, his.
“What’s the matter with him, sir?” was the eager question, the moment Jan cast his eyes on the invalid.
“I may be able to ascertain as soon as I have elbow room,” replied Jan. “Suppose you give it me? Mrs. Duff may stop, but nobody else.”
Jan’s easy words carried authority in their tone, and the company turned tail and began to file out.
“Couldn’t you do with me in, as well as his mother, sir?” asked Susan Peckaby. I was here when he came in, I was; and I knowed what it was a’most afore he spoke. He have been frightened by that thing in the pound. Only a few minutes afore, it had turned my inside a’most out.”
“No, I can’t,” answered Jan. “I must have the room clear. Perhaps I shall send away his mother.”
“I should ha’ liked to know for sure,” meekly observed Susan Peckaby, resigning herself to her fate. “I hope you’ll ask him, sir, when he comes to, whether it were not that thing in the pound as frightened him. I took it for some’at else, more’s the grief! but it looks, for all the world, like a ghost in the moonlight.”
“What is in the pound?” demanded Jan.
“It’s a white cow,” responded Susan Peckaby. “And it strikes me as it’s Farmer Blow’s. He have got a white cow, you know, sir, like he have got a white pony, and they be always a giving me a turn, one or t’other of ’em. I’d like old Blow to be indicted for a pest, I would! a-keeping white animals to upset folks. It’s not a week ago that I met the cow in the road at dusk,—strayed through a gap in the hedge. Tiresome beast! a-causing my heart to leap into my mouth!”
“If Dan have put himself into this state, and done all this damage, through nothing but seeing of a white cow, won’t I baste him!” emphatically rejoined Mrs. Duff.
Jan at length succeeded in getting the kitchen clear. But for some time, in spite of all his skill and attention—and he spared neither—he could make no impression upon the unhappy Dan. His mother’s bed was made ready for him—Dan himself sharing the accommodation of a dark closet in an ordinary way, in common with his brothers—and Jan carried him up to it. There he somewhat revived, sufficiently to answer a question or two rationally. It must be confessed that Jan felt some curiosity upon the subject: to suppose the boy had been thrown into that state, simply by seeing a white cow in the pound, was ridiculous.
“What frightened you?” asked Jan.
“I see’d a dead man,” answered the boy. “Oh, lor!”
“Well?” said Jan, with composure, “he didn’t eat you. What is there in a dead man to be alarmed at? I have seen scores—handled ’em, too. What dead man was it?”
The boy pulled the bed-clothes over him, and moaned. Jan pulled them down again.
“Of course you can’t tell! There’s no dead man in Deerham. Was it in the churchyard?”
“Was it in the pound?” asked Jan, triumphantly, thinking he had got it right this time.
The answer was an unexpected one.
“Where was it, then?”
“Oh-o-o-o-oh!” moaned the boy, beginning to shake and twitch again.
“Now, Dan Duff, this won’t do,” said Jan.
“Tell me quietly what you saw, and where you saw it.”
“I see’d a dead man,” reiterated Dan Duff. And it appeared to be all he was capable of saying.
“You saw a white cow on its hind legs,” returned Jan. “That’s what you saw. I am surprised at you, Dan Duff. I should have thought you more of a man.”
Whether the reproof overcame Master Duff’s nerves again, or the remembrance of the “dead man,” certain it was, that he relapsed into a state which rendered it imprudent, in Jan’s opinion, to continue for the present the questioning. One more only he put—for a sudden thought crossed him, which induced it.
“Was it in the copse at Verner’s Pride?”
“’Twas at the Willow-pool: he was a-walking round it. Oh-o-o-o-o-oh!”
Jan’s momentary fear was dispelled. A night or two back there had been a slight affray between Lionel’s gamekeeper and some poachers: and the natural doubt arose whether anything fresh of the same nature had taken place. If so, Dan Duff might have come upon one of them, lying dead or wounded. The words—“walking round the pool”—did away with this. For the present, Jan departed.
But, if Dan’s organs of disclosure are for the present in abeyance, there’s no reason why we should not find out what we can for ourselves. You may be very sure that Deerham would not fail to do it.
The French madmizel—as Mrs. Duff styled her, meaning, of course, Mademoiselle Benoite—had called in at Mrs. Duff’s shop and made a purchase. It consisted—if you are curious to know—of pins and needles, and a staylace. Not a parcel that would have weighed her down, certainly, had she borne it herself: but it pleased her to demand that Dan should carry it for her. This she did, partly to display her own consequence, chiefly that she might have a companion home, for Mademoiselle Benoite did not relish the walk alone by moonlight to Verner’s Pride. Of course young Dan was at the beck and call of Mrs. Duff’s customers, that being, as Mademoiselle herself might have said, his spécialité. Whether a customer bought a parcel that would have filled a van, or one that might have gone inside a penny thimble. Master Dan was equally expected to be in readiness to carry the purchase to its destination at night, if called upon. Master Dan’s days being connected now with the brickfields, where his “spécialité” appeared to be, to put layers of clay upon his clothes.
Accordingly, Master Dan started with Mademoiselle Benoite. She had been making purchases at other places, which she had brought away with her—shoes, stationery, and various things, all of which were handed over to the porter, Dan. They arrived at Verner’s Pride in safety, and Dan was ordered to follow her in, and deposit his packages on the table of the apartment that was called the steward’s room.
“One, two, three, four,” counted Mademoiselle Benoite, with French caution, lest he should have dropped any by the way. “You go outside now, Dan, and I bring you something from my pocket for your trouble.”
Dan returned outside accordingly, and stood gazing at the laundry windows, which were lighted up. Mademoiselle dived in her pocket, took something from thence, which she screwed carefully up in a bit of newspaper, and handed it to Dan. Dan had watched the process in a glow of satisfaction, believing it could be nothing less than a silver sixpence. How much more it might prove, Dan’s aspirations were afraid to anticipate.
“There!” said Mademoiselle, when she put it into his hand. “Now you can go back to your mother.”
She shut the door in his face somewhat inhospitably, and Dan eagerly opened his cadeau. It contained—two lumps of fine white sugar.
“Mean old cat!” burst forth Dan. “If it wasn’t that mother ’ud baste me, I’d never bring a parcel for her again, not if she bought up the shop. Wouldn’t I like to give all the French a licking!”
Munching his sugar wrathfully, he passed across the yard, and out at the gate. There he hesitated which way home he should take, like he had hesitated that far gone evening, when he had come up upon the errand to poor Rachel Frost. More than four years had elapsed since then, and Dan was now fourteen: but he was a young and childish boy of his age, which might be owing to the fact of being so kept under by his mother.
“I have a good mind to trick her!” soliloquised he; alluding, it must be owned, to that revered mother. “She wouldn’t let me go out to Bill Hook’s to night; though I telled her as it wasn’t for no nonsense I wanted to see him, but about that there grey ferret. I will, too! I’ll go back the field way, and cut down there. She’ll be none the wiser.”
Now this was really a brave resolve for Dan Duff. The proposed road would take him past the Willow-pool; and he, in common with other timorous spirits, had been given to eschew that place at night, since the end of Rachel. It must be supposed that the business, touching the grey ferret, was one of importance, for Dan to lose sight of his usual fears, and turn towards it.
Not once, from that time to this, had Dan Duff taken this road alone at night. From that cause probably, no sooner had he now turned into the lane, than he began to think of Rachel. He would have preferred to think of anything else in the world: but he found, like many others are obliged to find, that unpleasant thoughts cannot be driven away at will. It was not so much that the past night of misfortune was present to him, as that he feared to meet the ghost of Rachel.
He went on, glancing furtively on all sides, his face and his hair growing hotter and hotter. There, on his right, was the gate through which he had entered the field to give chase to the supposed cat; there, on the left, was the high hedge; before him, the length of lane traversed that evening by the tall man, who had remained undiscovered from that hour to this. Dan could see nothing now; no tall man, no cat; even the latter might have proved a welcome intruder. He glanced up at the calm sky, at the bright moon riding overhead. The night was perfectly still; a lovely night, could Dan only have kept the ghosts out of his mind.
Suddenly a horse, in the field on the other side the hedge, set up a loud neigh, right in Dan’s ear. Coming thus unexpectedly, it startled Dan above everything. He half resolved to go back, and turned round and looked the way he had come. But he plucked up some courage, and went on again: intending, the moment he came in sight of the Willow-pool, to make a dash past it at his utmost speed.
The intention was not carried out. Clambering over the gate which led to the enclosure, a more ready way to Dan than opening it, he was brought within view of the pool. There it was, down in the dreary lower part, near the trees. The pool itself was distinct enough, lying to the right, and Dan involuntarily looked towards it. Not to have saved his life, could Dan have helped looking.
Susan Peckaby had said to Jan, that her heart leaped into her mouth at the sight of the white cow in the pound. Poor Dan Duff might have said that his heart leaped right out of him, at sight now of the Willow-pool. For there was some shadowy figure moving round it.
Dan stood powerless. But for the gate behind him he would have turned and run: to scramble back over that, his limbs utterly refused. The delay caused him, in spite of his fear, to discern the very obvious fact, that the shadowy figure was not that of a woman habited in white—as the orthodox ghost of Rachel ought to have been—but a man’s, wearing dark clothes. There flashed into Dan’s remembrance the frequent nightly visits of Robin Frost to the pond, bringing with it a ray of relief.
Robin had been looked upon as little better than a lunatic since the misfortune; but, to Dan Duff, he appeared in that moment worth his weight in gold. Robin’s companionship was as good as anybody’s else to ward off the ghostly fears, and Dan set off, full speed, towards him. To go right up to the pond would take him a few yards out of his way to Bill Hook’s. What of that? To exchange words with a human tongue, Dan, in that mood of superstitious fright, would have gone as many miles.
He had run more than half the intervening distance, when he brought himself to a halt. It had become evident to Dan’s sight that it was not Robin Frost. Whoever it might be, he was a head and shoulders taller than Robin; and Dan moved up more quietly, his eyes strained forward in the moonlight. A suspicion came over him that it might be Mr. Verner: Dan could not, at the moment, remember anybody so tall, unless it was Mr. Jan. The figure stood now with its back to him; apparently gazing into the pool. Dan advanced with slow steps; if it was Mr. Verner, he would not presume to intrude upon him: but when he came nearly close, he saw that it bore no resemblance to the figure of Mr. Verner. Slowly, glidingly, the figure turned round; turned its face right upon Dan, full in the rays of the bright moon; and the most awful yell you ever heard went forth upon the still night air.
It came from Dan Duff. What could have been its meaning? Did he think he saw the ghost, which he had been looking out for the last half-hour, poor Rachel’s?—saw it beyond this figure which had turned upon him? Dan alone knew. That he had fallen into the most appalling terror, was certain. His eyes were starting, the drops of perspiration poured off him, and his hair rose up on end. The figure—just as if it had possessed neither sight nor hearing, neither sense nor sympathy for human sound—glided noiselessly away: and Dan went yelling on.
Towards home now. All thought of Bill Hook and the grey ferret was gone. Away he tore, the nearest way, which took him past the pound. He never saw the white cow: had the cow been a veritable ghost, Dan had not seen it then. The yells subsiding into moans, and the perspiration into fever heat, he gained his mother’s, and broke, as you have heard, the window in passing in.
Even so much as these particulars were not yet known. The first person to elicit them was Roy the bailiff.
After Jan Verner had departed, saying he should be back by-and-by, and giving Mrs. Duff strict orders to keep the boy quiet, and allow nobody near him but herself, and, above all, no questioning, Mrs. Duff quitted him: “that he might get a bit o’ sleep,” she said. In point of fact, Mrs. Duff was burning to exercise her gossiping powers with those other gossipers below. To them she descended; and found Susan Peckaby holding forth about the white cow.
“You be wrong, Susan Peckaby,” said Mrs. Duff. “It warn’t the white cow at all; he warn’t a-nigh the pound. He told Mr. Jan so.”
“Then what was it?” returned Susan Peckaby.
One of the present auditors was Roy the bailiff. He had only recently pushed in, and had stood listening in silence, taking in the various comments and opinions. As silently, he moved behind the group, and was stealing up the stairs. Mrs. Duff placed herself before him.
“Where be you a-going, Mr. Roy? Mr. Jan said as not a soul was to go a-nigh him to disturb him with talk. A nice thing, it ’ud be, for it to settle on his brain!”
“I ain’t a-going to disturb him,” returned Roy. “I have seen something myself to-night that is not over-kind. I’d like to get a inkling if it’s the same that has frighted him.”
“Was it in the pound?” eagerly asked Mrs. Peckaby.
“The pound be smothered!” was the polite answer vouchsafed by Roy. “Thee’ll go mad with th’ white donkey one of these days.”
“There can’t be any outlet to it, but one,” observed Mrs. Chuff, the blacksmith’s wife, giving her opinion in a loud key. “He must ha’ seen Rachel Frost’s ghost.”
“Have you been and seen that to-night, Mr. Roy?” cried Susan Peckaby.
“Maybe I have, and maybe I haven’t,” was Roy’s satisfactory reply. “All I say is, I’ve seen something that I’d rather not have seen; something that ’ud have sent all you women into fits. ’Twarn’t unlike Rachel, and ’twere clothed in white. I’ll just go and take a look at Dan, Mother Duff. No fear o’ my disturbing him.”
Mother Duff, absorbed with her visitors, allowed him to go on without further impediment. The first thing Roy did, upon getting up stairs, was to shut the chamber door; the next, to arouse and question the suffering Dan. Roy succeeded in getting from him the particulars already related; and a little more: insomuch that Dan mentioned the name which the dead man had borne in life.
Roy sat and stared at him after the revelation, keeping silence. It may have been that he was digesting the wonder: it may have been that he was deliberating upon his answer.
“Look you here, Dan Duff,” said he, by and by, holding the shaking boy by the shoulder. “You just breathe that name again to living mortal, and see if you don’t get hung up by the neck for it. ’Twas nothing but Rachel’s ghost. Them ghosts takes the form of anything that it pleases ’em to take; whether it’s a dead man’s, or whether it’s a woman’s, what do they care? There’s no ghost but Rachel’s ’ud be a-hovering over that pond. Where be your senses gone, not to know that?”
Poor Dan’s senses appeared to be wandering somewhere yet: they certainly were not in him. He shook and moaned, and finally fell into the same sort of stupor as before. Roy could make nothing further of him, and he went down.
“Well,” said he to the assemblage, “I’ve got it out of him. The minute he saw me, he stretched his arm out—‘Mr. Roy,’ says he, ‘I’m sick to unburden myself to somebody:’ and he up and told. He’s fell off again now, like one senseless, and I question if he’d remember telling me.”
“And what was it? And what was it?” questioned the chorus. “Rachel’s ghost?”
“It was nothing less, you may be sure,” replied Roy, his tone expressive of contempt that they should have thought it could be anything less. “The young idiot must take and go by the pond on this bright night, and in course he saw it. Right again his face, he says, it appeared; there wasn’t no mistaking of it. It was a-walking round and round the pool.”
Considerable shivering in the assembly. Polly Dawson, who was on its outskirts, shrieked, and pushed into its midst, as if it were a safer place. The women drew into a closer circle, and glanced round at an imaginary ghost behind their shoulders.
“Was it that as you saw yourself to-night, Mr. Roy?”
“Never mind me,” was Roy’s answer. “I ain’t one to be startled to death at sight of a sperit, like boys and women is. I had my pill in what I saw, I can tell ye. And my advice to ye all is, keep within your own doors after nightfall.”
Without further salutation, Roy departed. The women, with one accord, began to make for the staircase. To contemplate one who had just been in actual contact with the ghost—which some infidels had persistently asserted throughout was nothing but a myth—was a sight not to be missed. But they were driven back again. With a succession of yells, the like of which had never been heard, save at the Willow-pond that night, Dan appeared leaping down upon them, his legs naked and his short shirt flying behind him. To be left alone, a prey to ghosts or their remembrances, was more than the boy, with his consciousness upon him, could bear. The women yelled also, and fell back one upon another: not a few being under the impression that it was the ghost itself.
What was to be done with him? Before the question was finally decided, Mrs. Bascroft, the landlady of the Plough and Harrow, who had made one of the company, went off to her bar, whence she hastened back again with an immense hot tumbler, three parts brandy, one part water, the whole of which was poured down the throat of Dan.
“There’s nothing like it for restoring folks after a fright,” remarked Mrs. Bascroft.
The result of the dose was, that Dan Duff subsided into a state of real stupor, so profound and prolonged that even Jan began to doubt whether he would awake from it.
CHAPTER XXXVI. COMMOTION IN DEERHAM.
Lionel Verner sat over his morning letters, bending upon one of them a perplexed brow. A claim which he had settled the previous spring—at least, which he believed had been settled—was now forwarded to him again. That there was very little limit to his wife’s extravagance he had begun to know.
In spite of Sibylla’s extensive purchases, made in Paris at the time of their marriage, she had contrived by the end of the following winter to run up a tolerable bill at her London milliner’s. When they had gone to town in the early spring this bill got presented to Lionel. Four hundred and odd pounds. He give Sibylla a cheque for its amount, and some gentle loving words of admonition at the same time—not to spend him out of house and home.
A second account from the same milliner had arrived this morning—been delivered to him with other London letters. Why it should have been sent to him and not to his wife, he was unable to tell—unless it was meant as a genteel hint that payment would be acceptable. The whole amount was for eleven hundred pounds, but part of this purported to be “To bill delivered”—four hundred and odd pounds. The precise sum which Lionel believed to have been paid. Eleven hundred pounds! and all the other claims upon him! No wonder he sat with a bent brow. If things went on at this rate, Verner’s Pride would come to the hammer.
He rose, the account in his hand, and proceeded to his wife’s dressing room. Among other habits, Sibylla was falling into that of indolence, scarcely ever rising to breakfast now. Or, if she rose, she did not come down. Mademoiselle Benoite came, whisking out of a side room as he was about to enter.
“Madame’s toilette is not made, sir,” cried she, in a tart tone, as if she thought he had no right to enter.
“What of that?” returned Lionel. And he went in.
Just as she had got out of bed, save that she had a blue quilted silk dressing-gown thrown on, and her feet were thrust into blue quilted slippers, sat Sibylla, before a good fire. She leaned in an easy-chair, reading; a miniature breakfast service of Sèvres china, containing chocolate, on a low table at her side. Some people like to read a word or two of the Bible, as soon as conveniently may be, after getting up in the morning. Was that good book the study of Sibylla? Not at all. Her study was a French novel. By dint of patience, and the assistance of Mademoiselle Benoite in the hard words and complicated sentences, Mrs. Verner contrived to arrive tolerably well at its sense.
“Good gracious!” she exclaimed when Lionel appeared, “are you not gone shooting with the rest?”
“I did not go this morning,” he answered, closing the door, and approaching her.
“Have you taken breakfast?” she asked.
“Breakfast has been over a long while. Were I you, Sibylla, when I had guests staying in the house, I should try and rise to breakfast with them.”
“Oh you crafty Lionel! To save you the trouble of presiding. Thank you,” she continued, good-humouredly, “I am more comfortable here. What is this story about a ghost? The kitchen’s in a regular commotion, Benoite says.”
“To what do you allude?” asked Lionel.
“Dan Duff is dying, or dead,” returned Sibylla. “Benoite was in Deerham last night, and brought him home to carry her parcels. In going back again, he saw, as he says, Rachel Frost’s ghost, and it terrified him out of his senses. Old Roy saw it, too, and the news has travelled up here.”
Sibylla laughed as she spoke. Lionel looked vexed.
“They are very stupid,” he said. “A pity but they kept such stories to themselves. If they were only as quiet as poor Rachel’s ghost is, it might be better for some of them.”
“Of course you would wish it kept quiet,” said Sibylla, in a tone full of significance. “I like to hear of these frights—it is good fun.”
He did not fathom in the remotest degree the meaning of her tone. But he had not gone thither to dispute about ghosts.
“Sibylla,” he gravely said, putting the open account into her hand, “I have received this this morning.”
Sibylla ran her eyes over it with indifference: first at the bill’s head, to see whence it came, next at its sum total.
“What an old cheat! Eleven hundred pounds! I am sure I have not had the half.”
Lionel pointed to the part “bill delivered.”
“Was that not paid in the spring?”
“How can I recollect?” returned Sibylla, speaking as carelessly as before.
“I think you may recollect if you try. I gave you a cheque for the amount.”
“Oh, yes, I do recollect now. It has not been paid.”
“But, my dear, I say I gave the cheque for it.”
“I cashed the cheque myself. I wanted some money just then. You can’t think how fast money goes in London, Lionel.”
The avowal proved only what he suspected. Nevertheless it hurt him greatly—grieved him to his heart’s core. Not so much the spending of the money, as the keeping the fact from him. What a lack of good feeling, of confidence, it proved!
He bent towards her, speaking gently, kindly. Whatever might be her faults to him, her provocations, he could never behave otherwise to her than as a thorough gentleman, and a kind husband, too.
“It was not right to use that cheque, Sibylla. It was made out in Madame Lebeau’s name, and should have been paid to her. But why did you not tell me?”
Sibylla shrugged her shoulders in place of answer. She had picked up many such little national habits of Mademoiselle Benoite’s. Very conspicuous just then was the upright line on Lionel’s brow.
“The amount altogether is, you perceive, eleven hundred pounds,” he continued.
“Yes,” said Sibylla. “She’s a cheat, that Madame Lebeau. I shall make Benoite write her a French letter, and tell her so.”
“It must be paid. But it is a great deal of money. I cannot continue to pay these large sums, Sibylla. I have not the money to do it with.”
“Not the money! When you know you are paying heaps for Lady Verner! Before you tell me not to spend, you should cease supplying her.”
Lionel’s very brow flushed.
“My mother has a claim upon me only in a degree less than you have,” he gravely said. “Part of the revenues of Verner’s Pride ought to have been hers years ago: and they were not.”
“If my husband had lived—if he had left me a little child—Verner’s Pride would have been his and mine, and never yours at all.”
“Hush, Sibylla! You don’t know how these allusions hurt me,” he interrupted, in a tone of intense pain.
“They are true,” said Sibylla.
“But not—forgive me, my dear, for saying it—not the less unseemly.”
“Why do you grumble at me, then?”
“I do not grumble,” he answered, in a kind tone. “Your interests are mine, Sibylla, and mine are yours. I only tell you the fact—and a fact it is—that our income will not stand these heavy calls upon it. Were I to show you how much you have spent in dress since we married,—what with Paris, London, and Hartburg,—the sum total would frighten you.”
“Why do you keep the sum total?” resentfully asked Sibylla. “Why do you add it up?”
“I must keep my accounts correctly. My uncle taught me that.”
“I am sure he did not teach you to grumble at me,” she rejoined. “I look upon Verner’s Pride as mine, more than yours: if it had not been for the death of my husband, you would never have had it.”
Inexpressibly vexed—vexed beyond the power to answer, for he would not trust himself to answer—Lionel prepared to quit the room. He began to wish he had not had Verner’s Pride, if this was to be its domestic peace. Sibylla petulantly threw the French book from her lap upon the table, and it fell down with its pages open.
Lionel’s eyes caught its title, and a flush, not less deep than the preceding flush darkened his brow. He laid his open palm upon the page with an involuntary movement, as if he would guard it from the eyes of his wife. That she should be reading that notorious work!
“Where did you get this?” he cried. “It is not a fit book for you.”
“There’s nothing the matter with the book as far as I have gone.”
“Indeed you must not read it! Pray don’t, Sibylla! You will be sorry for it afterwards.”
“How do you know it is not a fit book?”
“Because I have read it.”
“There! You have read it! And you would like to deny the pleasure to me! Don’t say you are never selfish.”
“Sibylla! What is fit for me to read, may be most unfit for you. I read the book when I was a young man: I would not read it now. Is it Benoite’s?” he inquired, seeing the name in the first page.
“Yes it is.”
Lionel closed the book.
“Promise me, Sibylla, that you will not attempt to read more of it. Give it her back at once, and tell her to send it out of the house, or to keep it under lock and key while it remains within it.”
“Is it so very hard a promise?” he tenderly asked. “I would do a great deal more for you.”
“Yes, Lionel, I will promise,” she replied, a better feeling coming over her. “I will give it her back now. Benoite!”
She called loudly. Benoite heard, and came in.
“Mr. Verner says this is not a nice book. You may take it away.”
Mademoiselle Benoite advanced with a red face and took the book.
“Have you anymore such books?” inquired Lionel, looking at her.
“No, sir, I not got one other,” hardily replied she.
“Have the goodness to put this one away. Had your mistress been aware of the nature of the book, she had not suffered you to produce it.”
Mademoiselle went away, her skirts jerking. Lionel bent down to his wife.
“You know that it pains me to find fault, Sibylla,” he fondly whispered. “I have ever your welfare and happiness at heart. More anxiously, I think, than you have mine.”
He went back to his letters and papers. Later in the day he strolled out, and met the shooting-party coming home. After congratulating them on their good sport, he was turning home with them, when the gamekeeper intimated that he should be glad to speak a word to him in private. Upon which Lionel let the gentlemen go on.
“What is it, Broom?” asked he.
“I’m much afeared, sir, if things are not altered, that there’ll be murder committed some night,” answered Broom, without circumlocution.
“I hope not,” replied Lionel. “Are you and the poachers again at issue?”
“It’s not about the poachers, hang ’em! It’s about Robin Frost, sir. What on earth have come to him I can’t conceive. This last few nights he have took to come prowling out with a gun. He lays himself down in the copse, or a ditch, or the open field—no matter where—and there he stops, on the watch, with his gun always pointed.”
“On the watch for what?” asked Lionel.
“He best knows himself, sir. He’s going quite cracked, it’s my belief; he have been half-way to it this long while. Sometimes he’s travelling through the brushwood on all fours, the gun ever pointed; but mostly he’s posted on the watch. He’ll get shot for a poacher, or some of the poachers will shoot him, as sure as it’s a gun that he carries.”
“What can be his motive?” mused Lionel.
“I’m inclined to think, sir, though he is Robin Frost, that he’s after the birds,” boldly returned Broom.
“Then rely upon it that you think wrong, Broom,” rebuked Lionel. “Robin Frost would no more go out poaching, than I should go out thieving.”
“I saw him trailing along last night in the moonlight, sir. I saw his old father come up and talk to him, urging him to go home, as it seemed to me. But he couldn’t get him; and the old man had to hobble back without Robin. Robin stopped in his cold berth on the ground.”
“I did not think old Matthew was capable of going out at night.”
“He did last night, sir; that’s for certain. It was not far; only down away by the brick-kilns. There’s a tale going abroad that Dan Duff was sent into mortal fright by seeing something that he took to be Rachel’s ghost: my opinion is, that he must have met oldfit i Frost in his white smock-frock, and took him for a ghost. The moon did cast an uncommon white shade last night. Though old Frost wasn’t a-nigh the Willow-pool, nor Robin neither, and that’s where they say Dan Duff got his fright. Formerly, Robin was always round that pool, but lately he has changed his beat. Anyhow, sir, perhaps you be so good as drop a warning to Robin of the risk he runs. He may mind you.”
“I will,” said Lionel.
The gamekeeper touched his hat and walked away. Lionel considered that he might as well give Robin the warning then: and he turned towards the village. Before fairly entering it, he had met twenty talkative persons, who had given him twenty different versions of the previous night’s doings, touching Dan Duff.
Mrs. Duff was at her door when Lionel went by. She generally was at her door, unless she was serving customers. He stopped to accost her.
“What’s the truth of this affair, Mrs. Duff?” asked he. “I have heard many versions of it?”
Mrs. Duff gave as succinct an account as it was in her nature to give. Some would have told it in a third of the time: but Lionel had patience; he was in no particular hurry.
“I have been one of them to laugh at the ghost, sir; a-saying that it never was Rachel’s, and that it never walked,” she added. “But I’ll never do so again. Roy, he see it, as well as Dan.”
“Oh! he saw it, too, did he,” responded Lionel, with a good-natured smile of mockery. “Mrs. Duff, you ought to be too old to believe in ghosts,” he more seriously added. “I am sure Roy is, whatever he may say.”
“If it was no ghost, sir, what could have put our Dan into that awful fright? Mr. Jan doesn’t know as he’ll overget it at all. He’s a-lying without a bit of conscientiousness on my bed, his eyes shut, and his breath a-coming hard.”
“Something frightened him, no doubt. The belief in poor Rachel’s ghost has been so popular, that every night fright is attributed to that. Who was it went into a fainting fit in the road, fancying Rachel’s ghost was walking down upon them; and it proved afterwards to have been only the miller’s man with a sack of flour on his back?”
“Oh, that!” slightingly returned Mrs. Duff. “It was that stupid Mother Grind, before they went off with the Mormons. She’d drop at her shadder, sir, she would.”
“So would some of the rest of you,” said Lionel. “I am sorry to hear that Dan is so ill.”
“Mr. Jan’s in a fine way over him, sir. Mrs. Bascroft gave him just a taste of weak brandy and water, and Mr. Jan, when he come to know it, said we might just as well have give him pison; and he’d not answer for his life or his reason. A pretty thing it’ll be for Deerham, if there’s more lives to be put in danger, now the ghost have took to walk again! Mr. Bourne called in just now, sir, to learn the rights of it. He went up and see Dan: but nothing could he make of him. Would you be pleased to go up and take a look at him, sir?”
Lionel declined. He could do the boy no good, and had no especial wish to look at him, although he had been promoted to the notoriety of seeing a ghost. A few steps further he encountered Jan.
“What is it that’s the matter with the boy?” asked Lionel.
“He had a good fright; there’s no doubt about that,” replied Jan. “Saw a white cow on its hind legs, it’s my belief. That wouldn’t have been much: the boy would have been all right by now, but the women drenched him with brandy, and made him stupidly drunk. He’ll be better this evening. I can’t stop, Lionel: I am run off my legs to-day.”
The commotion in the village increased as the evening approached. Jan knew that young Dan would be well—save for any little remembrance of the fright which might remain—when the fumes of the brandy had gone off: but he wisely kept his own counsel, and let the public think he was in danger. Otherwise, a second instalment of the brandy might have been administered behind Jan’s back. To have a boy dying of fright from seeing a ghost was a treat in the marvellous line, which Deerham had never yet enjoyed. There had been no agitation like unto it, since the day of poor Rachel Frost.
Brave spirits, some of them! They volunteered to go out and meet the apparition. As twilight approached you could not have got into Mrs. Duff’s shop, for there was the chief gathering. Arguments were being used to prove that, according to all logic, if a ghost appeared one night, it was safe to appear a second.
“Who’ll speak up to go and watch for it?” asked Mrs. Duff. “I can’t. I can’t leave Dan. Sally Green’s a-sitting up by him now; for Mr. Jan says if he’s left again, he shall hold me responsible. It don’t stand to reason as I can leave Sally Green in charge of the shop, though I can leave her a bit with Dan. Not but what I’d go alone to the pond, and stop there; I haven’t got no fear.”
It singularly happened that those who were kept at home by domestic or other duties, had no fear: they, to hear them talk, would rather have enjoyed an encounter solus with the ghost, than not. Those who could plead no home engagement professed themselves willing to undertake the expedition in company; but freely avowed they would not go alone for the world.
“Come! who’ll volunteer?” asked Mrs. Duff. “It ’ud be a great satisfaction to see the form it appears in, and have that set at rest. Dan, he’ll never be able to tell, by the looks of him now.”
“I’ll go for one,” said bold Mrs. Bascroft. “And them as joins me shall each have a good stiff tumbler of some’at hot afore starting, to prime ’m again the cold.”
Whether it was the brave example set, or whether it was the promise accompanying it, certain it was, that there was no lack of volunteers now. A good round dozen started, filling up the Plough-and-Harrow bar, as Mrs. Bascroft dealt out her treat with no niggard hand.
“What’s a-doing now?” asked Bascroft, a stupid-looking man with red hair combed straight down his forehead, and coloured shirt sleeves, surveying the inroad on his premises with surprise.
“Never you mind,” sharply reproved his better half. “These ladies is my visitors, and if I choose to stand treat round, what’s that to you? You takes your share o’ liquor, Bascroft.”
Bascroft was not held in very great estimation by the ladies generally, and they turned their backs upon him.
“We are a-going out to see the ghost, if you must know, Bascroft,” said Susan Peckaby, who made one of the volunteers.
“What a set of idiots you must be!” grunted he. “Mr. Jan says as Dan Duff see nothing but a white cow: he telled me so hisself. Be you a-thinking to meet that there other white animal on your road, Mrs. Peckaby?”
“Perhaps I am,” tartly returned Mrs. Peckaby.
“One ’ud think so. You can’t want to go out to meet ghostesses; you be a going out to your saints at New Jerusalem. I’d whack that there donkey for being so slow, when he did come, if I was you.”
Hastening away from Bascroft and his aggravating tongue, the expedition, having drained their tumblers, filed out. Down by the pound—relieved now of its caged inmate—went they, on towards the willow pond. The tumblers had made them brave. The night was light, as the preceding one had been: the ground looked white, as if with frost, and the air was cold. The pond in view, they halted, and took a furtive glance, beginning to feel somewhat chill. So far as these half glances allowed them to judge, there appeared to be nothing near to it, nothing upon its brink.
“It’s of no good marching right up to it,” said Mrs. Jones, the baker’s wife. “The ghost mightn’t come at all, if it saw all us there. Let’s get inside the trees.”
Mrs. Jones meant inside the grove of trees. The proposition was most acceptable, and they took up their position, the pond in view, peeping out, and conversing in a whisper. By and by they heard the church clock strike eight.
“I wish it ’ud make haste,” exclaimed Susan Peckaby, with some impatience. “I don’t never like to be away from home long together, for fear of that there blessed white animal arriving.”
“He’d wait, wouldn’t he?” sarcastically rejoined Polly Dawson. “He’d—”
A prolonged hush—sh—sh! from the rest restored silence. Something was rustling the trees at a distance. They huddled closer together, and caught hold one of another.
Nothing appeared. The alarm went off. And they waited, without result, until the clock struck nine. The artificial strength within them had cooled by that time, their ardour had cooled, and they were feeling chill and tired. Susan Peckaby was upon thorns, she said, and urged their departure.
“You can go if you like,” was the answer. “Nobody wants to keep you.”
Susan Peckaby measured the distance between the pond and the way she had to go, and came to the determination to risk it.
“I’ll make a rush for it, I think,” said she. “I shan’t see nothing. For all I know, that quadruple may be right afore our door now. If he—”
Susan Peckaby stopped, her voice subsiding into a shriek. She, and those with her, became simultaneously aware that some white figure was bearing down upon them. The shrieks grew awful.
It proved to be Roy in his white fustian jacket. Roy had never had the privilege of hearing a dozen women shriek in concert before, at least, like this. His loud derisive laugh was excessively aggravating. What with that, what with the fright his appearance had really put them in, they all tore off, leaving some hard words for him; and never stopped to take breath until they burst into the shop of Mrs. Duff.
It was rather an ignominious way of returning, and Mrs. Duff did not spare her comments. If she had went out to meet the ghost, she’d ha’ stopped till the ghost came, she would! Mrs. Jones rejoined that them watched-for ghosts, as she had heered, never did come—which she had said so afore they went out!
Master Dan, considerably recovered, was down then. Rather pale and shaky, and accommodated with a chair and pillow, in front of the kitchen fire. The expedition pressed into the kitchen, and five hundred questions were lavished upon the boy.
“What was it dressed in, Dan? Did you get a good sight of her face, Dan? Did it look just as Rachel’s used to look? Speak up, Dan.”
“It warn’t Rachel at all,” replied Dan.
This unexpected assertion brought a pause of discomfiture. “He’s head ain’t right yet,” observed Mrs. Duff, apologetically: “and that’s why I’ve not asked him nothing.”
“Yes, it is right, mother,” said Dan. “I never see Rachel last night. I never said as I did.”
Another pause: spent in contemplating Dan. “I knowed a case like this, once afore,” observed old Miss Till, who carried round the milk to Deerham. “A boy got a fright, and they couldn’t bring him to at all. Epsum salts did it at last. Three pints of ’em they give, I think it was, and that brought his mind round.”
“It’s a good remedy,” acquiesced Mrs. Jones. “There’s nothing like plenty of Epsum salts for boys. I’d try ’em on him, Mother Duff.”
“Dan, dear,” said Susan Peckaby, insinuatingly,—for she had come in along with the rest, ignoring for the moment what might be waiting at her door,—“was it in the pound as you saw Rachel’s ghost?”
“’Twarn’t Rachel’s ghost as I did see,” persisted Dan.
“Tell us whose it was, then?” asked she, humouring him.
The boy answered. But he answered below his breath; as if he scarcely dared to speak the name aloud. His mother partially caught it.
“Whose?” she exclaimed, in a sharp voice, her tone changing. And Dan spoke a little louder.
“It was Mr. Frederick Massingbird’s!”