Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 20
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXXIX. MRS. DUFF’S BILL.
Peal! peal! peal! came the sound of the night-bell at Jan’s window as he lay in bed. For Jan had caused the night-bell to be hung there since he was factotum.
“Where’s the good of waking-up the house?” remarked Jan: and he made the alteration.
Jan got up with the first sound, and put his head out at the window. Upon which, Hook—for he was the applicant—advanced. Jan’s window being, as you may remember, nearly on a level with the ground, presented favourable auspices for holding a face to face colloquy with night visitors.
“She’s mortal bad, sir,” was Hook’s salutation.
“Who is?” asked Jan. “Alice, or the missis?”
“Not the missis, sir. The other. But I shouldn’t ha’ liked to trouble you, if you hadn’t ordered me.”
“I won’t be two minutes,” said Jan.
It seemed to Hook that Jan was only one, so speedily did he come out. A belief was popular in Deerham that Mr. Jan slept with his clothes on: no sooner would a night summons be delivered to Jan, than Jan was out with the summoner, ready for the start. Before he had closed the surgery door, through which he had to pass, there came another peal, and a woman ran up to him. Jan recognised her for the cook of a wealthy lady in the Belvedere Road, a Mrs. Ellis.
“Law, sir! what a provident mercy that you are up and ready!” exclaimed she. “My mistress is attacked again.”
“Well, you know what to do,” returned Jan. “You don’t want me.”
“But she do want you, sir. I have got orders not to go back without you.”
“I suppose she has been eating cucumber again,” remarked Jan.
“Only a bit of it, sir. About the half of a small one, she took for her supper. And now the spasms is on her dreadful.”
“Of course they are,” replied Jan. “She knows how cucumber serves her. Well, I can’t come. I’ll send Mr. Cheese, if you like. But he can do no more good than you can. Give her the drops and get the hot flannels; that’s all.”
“You are going out, sir!” cried the woman, in a tone that sounded as if she would like to be impertinent. “You are come for him, I suppose?” turning a sharp tongue upon Hook.
“Yes, I be,” humbly replied Hook. “Poor Ally—”
The woman set up a scream. “You’d attend her, that miserable castaway, afore you’d attend my mistress!” burst out she to Jan. “Who’s Ally Hook, by the side of folks of standing?”
“If she wants attendance, she must have it,” was the composed return of Jan. “She has got a body and a soul to be saved, as other folks have. She is in danger; your mistress is not.”
“Danger! What has that got to do with it?” angrily answered the woman. “You’ll never get paid there, sir.”
“I don’t expect it,” returned Jan. “If you’d like Cheese, that’s his window,” pointing to one in the house. “Throw a handful of gravel up, and tell him I said he was to attend.”
Jan walked off with Hook. He heard a crash of gravel behind him; so, concluded the cook was flinging at Mr. Cheese’s window in a temper. As she certainly was: giving Mr. Jan some hard words in the process. Just as Lady Verner had never been able to inculcate suavity on Jan, so Dr. West had found it a hopeless task to endeavour to make Jan understand that, in medical care, the rich should be considered before the poor. Take, for example, that bête noire of Deerham just now, Alice Hook, and put her by the side of a born duchess, Jan would have gone to the one who had most need of him, without reference to who they were or what they were. Evidently there was little hope for Jan.
Jan, with his long legs, outstripped the stooping and hard-worked labouring man. In at the door and up the stairs he went, into the sleeping room.
Did you ever pay a visit to a room of this social grade? If not, you will deem the introduction of this one highly coloured. Had Jan been a head and shoulders shorter he might have been able to stand up in the lean-to attic, without touching the lath and plaster of the roof. On a low bedstead, on a flock mattress, lay the mother and two children, about eight and ten. How they made room for Hook also, was a puzzle. Opposite to it, on a straw mattress, slept three sons, grown up, or nearly so; between these beds was another straw mattress where lay Alice and her sister, a year younger: no curtains, no screens, no anything. All were asleep, with the exception of the mother and Alice: the former could not rise from her bed; Alice appeared too ill to rise from hers. Jan stooped his head, and entered.
A few minutes, and he set himself to arouse the sleepers. They might make themselves comfortable in the kitchen, he told them, for the rest of the night: he wanted room in the place to turn himself round, and they must go out of it. And so he bundled them out. Jan was not given to stand upon ceremony. But it is not a pleasant room to linger in, so we will leave Jan to it.
It was pleasanter at Lady Verner’s. Enough of air, and light, and accommodation there. But even in that desirable residence it was not all couleur de rose. Vexations intrude into the most luxurious home, whatever may be the superfluity of room, the admirable style of the architecture: and they were just now agitating Deerham Court.
On the morning which rose on the above night—as lovely a morning as ever September gave us—Lady Verner and Lucy Tempest received each a letter from India. Both were from Colonel Tempest. The contents of Lady Verner’s annoyed her, and the contents of Lucy’s annoyed her.
It appeared that some considerable time back; nearly, if not quite, twelve months, Lucy had privately written to Colonel Tempest, urgently requesting to be allowed to go out to join him. She gave no reason or motive for the request, but urged it strongly. That letter, in consequence of the moving about of Colonel Tempest, had only just reached him: and now had arrived the answer to it. He told Lucy that he should very shortly be returning to Europe: therefore it was useless for her to think of going out.
So far, so good. However Lucy might have been vexed or disappointed at the reply—and she was both; still more at the delay which had taken place—there the matter would have ended. But Colonel Tempest, having no idea that Lady Verner was a stranger to this request; inferring, on the contrary, that she was a party to it, and must therefore be growing tired of her charge, had also written to her an elaborate apology for leaving Lucy so long upon her hands, and for being unable to comply with her wish to be relieved of her. This enlightened Lady Verner as to what Lucy had done.
She was very angry. She was worse than angry; she was mortified. And she questioned Lucy a great deal more closely than that young lady liked, as to what her motive could have been, and why she was tired of Deerham Court.
Lucy, all self-conscious of the motive by which she had been really actuated, stood before her like a culprit.
“I am not tired of Deerham Court, Lady Verner. But I wished to be with papa.”
“Which is equivalent to saying that you wish to be away from me.” retorted my lady. “I ask you why?”
“Indeed, Lady Verner, I am pleased to be with you; I like to be with you. It was not to be away from you that I wrote. It is a long while since I saw papa: so long, that I seem to have forgotten what he is like.”
“Can you assure me, in all open truth, that the wish to be with Colonel Tempest was your sole reason for writing, unbiassed by any private feeling touching Deerham?” returned Lady Verner, searching her face keenly. “I charge you answer me, Lucy.”
Lucy could not answer that it was her sole reason, unless she told an untruth. Her eyes fell under the gaze bent upon her.
“I see,” said Lady Verner. “You need not equivocate more. Is it to me that you have taken a dislike? or to any part of my arrangements?”
“Believe me, dear Lady Verner, that it is neither to you nor to your home,” she answered, the tears rising to her eyes. “Believe me, I am as happy here as I ever was: on that score I have no wish to change.”
It was an unlucky admission of Lucy’s, “on that score.” Of course, Lady Verner immediately pressed to know on what other score the wish might be founded. Lucy pleaded the desire to be with her father, which Lady Verner did not believe; and she pleaded nothing else. It was not satisfactory to my lady, and she kept Lucy the whole of the morning, harping upon the sore point.
Lionel entered, and interrupted the discussion. Lady Verner put him in possession of the facts. That for some cause which Lucy refused to explain, she wanted to leave Deerham Court; had been writing, twelve months back, to Colonel Tempest to be allowed to join him in India; and the negative answer had arrived but that morning. Lady Verner would like the motive for her request explained: but Lucy was obstinate, and would not explain it.
Lionel turned his eyes on Lucy. If she had stood self-conscious before Lady Verner, she stood doubly self-conscious now. Her eyelashes were drooping, her cheeks were crimson.
“She says she has no fault to find with me, no fault to find with the arrangements of my house,” pursued Lady Verner. “Then I want to know what else it is that should drive her away from Deerham. Look at her, Lionel! That is how she stands: unable to give me an answer.”
Lady Verner might equally well have said, Look at Lionel. He stood self-conscious also. Too well he knew the motive—absence from him—which had actuated Lucy. From him, the married man, the man who had played her false; away, anywhere, from witnessing the daily happiness of him and his wife. He read it all, and Lucy saw that he did.
“It were no such strange wish, surely, to be where my dear papa is!” she exclaimed, the crimson of her cheeks turning to scarlet.
“No,” murmured Lionel, “no such strange wish. I wish I could go to India, and free the neighbourhood of my presence!”
A curious wish! Lady Verner did not understand it. Lionel gave her no opportunity to inquire its meaning, for he turned to quit the room and the house. She rose and laid her hand upon his arm to detain him.
“I have an engagement,” pleaded Lionel.
“A moment yet. Lionel, what is this nonsense that is disturbing the equanimity of Deerham? About a ghost?”
“Ah, what indeed?” returned Lionel, in a careless tone, as if he would make light of it. “You know what Deerham is, mother. Some think Dan Duff saw his own shadow, some a white cow in the pound. Either is sufficient marvel for Deerham.”
“So vulgar a notion!” reiterated Lady Verner, resuming her seat, and taking her essence bottle in her delicately gloved hands. “I wonder you don’t stop it, Lionel.”
“I!” cried Lionel, opening his eyes in considerable surprise. “How am I to stop it?”
“You are the lord of Deerham. It is vulgar, I say, to have such a report afloat on your estate.”
Lionel smiled. “I don’t know how you are to put away vulgarity from stargazers and villagers. Or ghosts, either—if they once get ghosts in their heads.”
He finally left the Court, and turned towards home. His mother’s words about the ghost had brought the subject to his mind. If, indeed, it had required bringing: but the whispered communication of the vicar the previous night had scarcely been out of his thoughts since. It troubled him. In spite of himself, of his good sense and reason, there was an undercurrent of uneasiness at work within him. Why should there be? Lionel could not have explained had he been required to do it. That Frederick Massingbird was dead and buried, there could be no shade of doubt: and ghosts had no place in the creed of Lionel Verner. All true: but the consciousness of uneasiness was there, and he could not ignore it.
In the last few days, the old feeling touching Lucy had been revived with unpleasant force. Since that night which she had spent at his house, when they saw, or fancied they saw, a man hiding himself under the tree, he had thought of her more than was agreeable; more than was right, he would have said, but that he saw not how to avoid it. The little episode of this morning at his mother’s house had served to open his eyes most completely: to show him how intense was his love for Lucy Tempest. It must be confessed that his wife did little towards striving to retain his love.
He went along, thinking of these things: he would have put them from him; but he could not. The more he tried, the more unpleasantly vivid they became. “Tush!” said Lionel. “I must be getting nervous! I’ll ask Jan to give me a draught.”
He was passing Dr. West’s as he spoke, and he turned into the surgery. Sitting on the bung of a large stone jar was Master Cheese, his attitude a disconsolate one, his expression of countenance rebellious.
“Is Mr. Jan at home?” asked Lionel.
“No, he’s not at home, sir,” replied Master Cheese, as if the fact were some personal grievance of his own. “Here’s all the patients, all the making up of the physic left in my charge, and I’d like to know how I am to do it? I can’t go out fifty ways at a time?”
“And so you expedite the matter by not going to one! Where is Mr. Jan?”
“He was fetched out in the night to that beautiful Ally Hook,” grumbled Master Cheese. “It’s a shame, sir, folks are saying, for him to give his time to her. I had to leave my warm bed and march out to that fanciful Mother Ellis through it, who’s always getting the spasms. And I had about forty poor here this morning, and couldn’t get a bit of comfortable breakfast for ’em. Miss Debb, she never kept my bacon warm, or anything; and somebody had eaten the meat out of the veal pie when I got back. Jan will have those horrid poor here twice a week, and if I speak against it, he tells me to hold my tongue.”
“But is Mr. Jan not back yet from Hook’s?”
“No, sir, he’s not,” was the resentful response. “He has never come back at all since he went, and that was at four o’clock this morning. If he had gone to cut off all the arms in the house he couldn’t have been longer! And I wish him joy of it! He’ll get no breakfast. They have got nothing for themselves but bread and water.”
Lionel left his draught an open question, and departed. As he turned into the principal street again, he saw Master Dan Duff at the door of his mother’s shop. A hasty impulse prompted Lionel to question the boy of what he saw that unlucky night; or believed he saw. He crossed over; but Master Dan retreated inside the shop. Lionel followed him.
“Well, Dan! Have you overcome the fright of the cow yet?”
“’Twarn’t a cow, please, sir,” replied Dan, timidly. “’Twere a ghost.”
“Whose ghost?” returned Lionel.
Dan hesitated. He stood first on one leg then on the other.
“Please, sir, ’twarn’t Rachel’s,” said he presently.
“Whose then?” repeated Lionel.
“Please, sir, mother said I warn’t to tell you. Roy, he said, if I told it to anybody, I should be took and hunged.”
“But I say that you are to tell me,” said Lionel. And his pleasant tone, combined with the fact perhaps that he was Mr. Verner, effected more with Dan Duff than his mother’s sharp tone or Roy’s threatening one.
“Please, sir,” glancing round to make sure that his mother was not within hearing, “’twere Mr. Fred Massingbird’s. They can’t talk me out on’t, sir. I see’d the porkypine as plain as I see’d him. He were—”
Dan brought his information to a summary stand-still. Bustling down the stairs was that revered mother. She came in, curtseying fifty times to Lionel. “What could she have the honour of serving him with?” He was leaning over the counter, and she concluded he had come to patronise the shop.
“I am a profitless customer, I believe, Mrs. Duff. I was only talking to Dan.”
Dan sidled off to the street-door. Once there, he took to his heels, out of harm’s way. Mr. Verner might get telling his mother more particulars, and it was as well to be at a safe distance.
Lionel, however, had no intention to betray trust. He stood chatting a few minutes with Mrs. Duff. He and Mrs. Duff had been great friends when he was an Eton boy: many a time had he ransacked her shop over for flies and gut and other fishing tackle, a supply of which Mrs. Duff professed to keep. She listened to him with a somewhat pre-occupied manner: in point of fact, she was debating a question with herself.
“Sir,” said she, rubbing her hands nervously one over the other, “I should like to make bold to ask a favour of you. But I don’t know how it might be took. I’m fearful it might be took as a cause of offence.”
“Not by me. What is it?”
“It’s a delicate thing, sir, to have to ask about,” resumed she. “And I shouldn’t venture, sir, to speak to you, but that I’m so put to it, and that I’ve got it in my head it’s through the fault of the servants.”
She spoke with evident reluctance. Lionel, he scarcely knew why, leaped to the conclusion that she was about to say something regarding the subject then agitating Deerham—the ghost of Frederick Massingbird. Unconsciously to himself, the pleasant manner changed to one of constraint.
“Say what you have to say, Mrs. Duff.”
“Well, sir—but I’m sure I beg a hundred thousand pardings for mentioning of it—it’s about the bill,” she answered, lowering her voice. “If I could be paid, sir, it ’ud be the greatest help to me. I don’t know hardly how to keep on.”
No revelation touching the ghost could have given Lionel the surprise imparted by these ambiguous words. But his constraint was gone.
“I do not understand you, Mrs. Duff. What bill?”
“The bill what’s owing to me, sir, from Verner’s Pride. It’s a large sum for me, sir,—thirty-two pound odd. I have to keep up my payments for my goods, sir, whether or not, or I should be a bankrupt to-morrow. Things is hard upon me just now, sir: though I don’t want everybody to know it. There’s that big son o’ mine, Dick, out o’ work. If I could have the bill, or only part of it, it ’ud be like a God-send.”
“Who owes you the bill?” asked Lionel.
“It’s your good lady, sir, Mrs. Verner.”
“Who?” echoed Lionel, his accent quite a sharp one.
“Mrs. Verner, sir.”
Lionel stood gazing at the woman. He could not take in the information: he believed there must be some mistake.
“It were for things supplied between the time Mrs. Verner came home after your marriage, sir, and when she went to London in the spring. The French Madmizel, sir, came down and ordered some on ’em; and Mrs. Verner herself, sir, ordered others.”
Lionel looked around the shop. He did not disbelieve the woman’s words, but he was in a maze of astonishment. Perhaps a doubt of the Frenchwoman crossed his mind.
“There’s nothing here that Mrs. Verner would wear!” he exclaimed.
“There’s many odds and ends of things here, sir, as is useful to a lady’s tilette—and you’d be surprised, sir, to find how such things mounts up when they be had continual. But the chief part o’ the bill, sir, is for two silk gownds as was had off our traveller. Mrs. Verner, sir, she happened to be here when he called in one day last winter, and she saw his patterns, and she chose two dresses, and said she’d buy ’em of me if I ordered ’em. Which in course I did, sir, and paid for ’em, and sent ’em up. I saw her wear ’em both, sir, after they was made up, and very nice they looked.”
Lionel had heard quite enough.
“Where is the bill?” he inquired.
“It have been sent in, sir, long ago. When I found Mrs. Verner didn’t pay it afore she went away, I made bold to write and ask her. Miss West she give me the address in London, and said she wished she could pay me herself. I didn’t get a answer, sir, and I made bold to write again, and I never got one then. Twice I have been up to Verner’s Pride, sir, since you come home this time, but I can’t get to see Mrs. Verner. That French Madmizel’s one o’ the best I ever see at putting folks off. Sir, it goes again the grain to trouble you; and if I could have got to see Mrs. Verner, I never would have said a word. Perhaps if you’d be so good as to tell her, sir, how hard I’m put to it, she’d send me a little.”
“I am sure she will,” said Lionel. “You shall have your money to-day, Mrs. Duff.”
He turned out of the shop, a scarlet spot of emotion on his cheek. Thirty-two pounds owing to poor Mrs. Duff! Was it thoughtlessness on Sibylla’s part? He strove to beat down the conviction that it was a less excusable error.
But the Verner pride had been wounded to its very core.
CHAPTER XL. A LIFE HOVERING IN THE BALANCE.
Gathered before a target on the lawn, in their archery costume gleaming with green and gold, was a fair group, shooting their arrows in the air. Far more went into the air than struck the target. They were the visitors of Verner’s Pride: and Sibylla, the hostess, was the gayest, the merriest, the fairest among them.
Lionel came on to the terrace, descended the steps, and crossed the lawn to join them: as courtly, as apparently gay, as if that bill of Mrs. Duff’s was not making havoc of his heartstrings. They all ran to surround him: it was not often they had so attractive a host to surround: and attractive men are, and always will be, welcome to women. A few minutes, a quarter of an hour given to them, an unruffled smoothness on his brow, a smile upon his lips, and then he contrived to draw his wife aside.
“Oh, Lionel, I forgot to tell you,” she exclaimed. “Poynton has been here. He knows of the most charming pair of grey ponies, he says. And they can be ours if secured at once.”
“I don’t want grey ponies,” replied Lionel.
“But I do,” cried Sibylla. “You say I am too timid to drive. It is all nonsense; I should soon get over the timidity. I will learn to drive, Lionel. Mrs. Jocelyn, come here,” she called out.
Mrs. Jocelyn, a young and pretty woman, almost as pretty as Sibylla, answered to the summons.
“Tell Mr. Verner what Poynton said about the ponies.”
“Oh, you must not miss the opportunity,” cried Mrs. Jocelyn to Lionel. “They are perfectly beautiful, the man said. Very dear, of course; but you know nobody looks at money when buying horses for a lady. Mrs. Verner must have them. You might secure them to-day.”<-- see list of hyphenated words -->
“I have no room in my stables for more horses,” said Lionel, smiling at Mrs. Jocelyn’s eagerness.
“Yes you have, Lionel,” interposed his wife, “or room must be made. I have ordered the ponies to be brought.”
“I shall send them back,” said Lionel laughing.
“Don’t you wish your wife to take to driving, Mr. Verner? Don’t you like to see a lady drive? Some don’t.”
“I think there is no necessity for a lady to drive, while she has a husband at her side to drive for her,” was the reply of Lionel.
“Well—if I had such a husband as you to drive for me, I don’t know but I might subscribe to that doctrine,” candidly avowed Mrs. Jocelyn. “I would not miss these ponies, were I Mrs. Verner. They are calling me. It is my turn, I suppose.”
“She ran back to the shooting. Sibylla was following her, but Lionel caught her hand, and drew her into a covered walk. Placing her hand within his arm, he began to pace it.
“I must go back, too, Lionel.”
“Presently. Sibylla, I have been terribly vexed this morning.”
“Oh, now Lionel, don’t you begin about ‘vexing,’” interrupted Sibylla, in the foolish, light, affected manner, which had grown worse of late, more intolerable to Lionel. “I have ordered the ponies. Poynton will send them in; and if there’s really not room in the stables, you must see about it, and give orders that room must be made.”
“I cannot buy the ponies,” he firmly said. “My dear, I have given in to your every wish, to your most trifling whim; but, as I told you a few days ago, these ever-recurring needless expenses I cannot stand. Sibylla”—and his voice grew hoarse—“do you know that I am becoming embarrassed?”
“I don’t care if you are,” pouted Sibylla. “I must have the ponies.”
His heart ached. Was this the loving wife—the intelligent companion for whom he had once yearned?—the friend who should be as his own soul? He had married the Sibylla of his imagination; and he awoke to find Sibylla—what she was. The disappointment was heavy upon him always; but there were moments when he could have cried out aloud in its sharp bitterness.
“Sibylla, you know the state in which some of my tenants live; the miserable dwellings they are forced to inhabit. I must change this state of things. I believe it to be a duty for which I am accountable to God. How am I to set about it if you ruin me?”
Sibylla put her fingers to her ears. “I can’t stand to listen when you preach, Lionel. It is as bad as a sermon.”
It was ever thus. He could not attempt to reason with her. Anything like sensible conversation she could not or would not hold. Lionel, considerate to her as he ever was, felt provoked.
“Do you know that this unfortunate affair of Alice Hook’s is laid remotely to me?” he said, a sternness which he could not help in his tone. “People are saying that if I gave them decent dwellings, decent conduct would ensue. It is so. God knows that I feel its truth more keenly than my reproachers.”
“The dwellings are good enough for the poor.”
“Sibylla? You cannot think it. The laws of God and man alike demand a change. “Child,” he continued in a softer tone, as he took her hand in his, “let us bring the case home to ourselves. Suppose that you and I had to sleep in a room a few feet square, no chimney, no air, and that others tenanted it with us? Girls and boys growing up: nay, grown up, some of them; men and women as we are, Sibylla. The beds huddled together, no space between them; sickness, fever—”
“I am only shutting my ears,” interrupted Sibylla. “You pretend to be so careful of me—you would not even let me go to that masked ball in Paris—and yet put these horrid pictures into my mind! I think you ought to be ashamed of it, Lionel. People sleeping in the same room with us!”
“If the picture be revolting, what must be the reality?” was his rejoinder. “They have to endure it.”
“They are used to it,” retorted Sibylla. “They are brought up to nothing better.”
“Just so. And therefore their perceptions of right and wrong are deadened. The wonder is not that Alice Hook has lost herself, but that—”
“I don’t want to hear about Alice Hook,” interrupted Sibylla. “She is not very good to talk about.”
“I have been openly told, Sibylla, that the reproach should lie at my door.”
“I believe it is not the first reproach of the kind that has been cast to you,” answered Sibylla, with cutting sarcasm.
He did not know what she meant, or in what sense to take the remark: but his mind was too pre-occupied to linger on it.
“With these things staring me in the face, how can I find money for superfluous vanities? The time has come when I am compelled to make a stand against it. I will, I must have decent dwellings on my estate, and I shall set about the work without a day’s loss of time. For that reason, if for no other, I cannot buy the ponies.”
“I have bought them,” coolly interrupted Sibylla.
“Then, my dear, you must forgive me if I countermand the purchase. I am resolute, Sibylla,” he continued, in a firm tone. “For the first time since our marriage, I must deny your wish. I cannot let you bring me to beggary, because it would also involve you. Another year or two of this extravagance, and I should be on the verge of it.”
Sibylla flung his arm from her. “Do you want to keep me as a beggar? I will have the ponies!”
He shook his head. “The subject is settled, Sibylla. If you cannot think for yourself, I must think for you. But it was not to speak of the ponies that I brought you here. What is it that you owe to Mrs. Duff?”
Sibylla’s colour heightened. “It is no business of yours, Lionel, what I owe her. There may be some little trifle or other down in her book. It will be time enough for you to concern yourself with my little petty debts when you are asked to pay them.”
“Then that time is the present one, with regard to Mrs. Duff. She applied to me for the money this morning. At least, she asked if I would speak to you—which is the same thing. She says you owe her thirty-two pounds. Sibylla, I had far rather been stabbed than have heard it.”
“A fearful sum, truly, to be doled out of your coffers!” cried Sibylla, sarcastically. “You’ll never recover it, I should think!”
“Not that, not that,” was the reply of Lionel, his tone one of pain. “Sibylla! have you no sense of the fitness of things? Is it seemly for the mistress of Verner’s Pride to keep a poor woman, as Mrs. Duff is, out of her money; a humble shopkeeper who has to pay her way as she goes on?”
“I wish Fred had lived! He would never have taken me to task, as you do.”
“I wish he had!” was the retort in Lionel’s heart: but he bit his lips to silence: exchanging the words after a few minutes’ pause for others.
“You would have found Frederick Massingbird a less indulgent husband to you than I have been,” he firmly said. “But these remarks are profitless, and will add to the comfort of neither you nor me. Sibylla, I shall send, in your name, to pay this bill of Mrs. Duff’s. Will you give it me?”
“I daresay Benoite can find it, if you choose to ask her.”
“And, my dear, let me beg of you not to contract these paltry debts. There have been others, as you know. I do not like that Mrs. Verner’s name should be thus bandied in the village. What you buy in the village, pay for at once.”
“How can I pay while you stint me?”
“Stint you!” repeated Lionel in amazement. Stint you!”
“It’s nothing but stinting—going on at me as you do!” she sullenly answered. “You would like to deprive me of the horses I have set my mind upon! You know you would!”
“The horses you cannot have, Sibylla,” he answered, his tone a decisive one. “I have already said it.”
It aroused her anger.
“If you don’t let me have the horses, and everything else I want, I’ll go where I can have them.”
What did she mean? Lionel’s cheek turned white with the taunt the words might be supposed to imply. He held her two hands in his, pressing them nervously.
“You shall not force me to quarrel with you, Sibylla,” he continued with emotion. “I have almost registered a vow that no offensive word or conduct on your part shall make me forget myself for a moment; or render me other than an ever considerate, tender husband. It may be that our marriage was a mistake for both of us: but we shall do well to make the best of it. It is the only course remaining.”
He spoke in a strangely earnest tone: one of deep agitation. Sibylla was aroused. She had believed that Lionel blindly loved her. Otherwise she might have been more careful to retain his love: there’s no knowing.
“How do you mean that our marriage was a mistake for both of us?” she hastily cried.
“You do your best to remind me continually that it must be so,” was his reply.
“Psha!” returned Sibylla. And Lionel, without another word, quitted her and walked away. In these moments, above all others, would the image of Lucy Tempest rise up before his sight. Beat it down as he would, it was ever present to him. A mistake in his marriage? Ay; none, save Lionel, knew how fatal a one.
He passed on direct to the terrace, avoiding the lawn, traversed it, and went out at the large gates. Thence he made his way to Poynton’s, the veterinary surgeon, who also dealt in horses. At least, dealt in them so far as that he would buy and sell when employed to do so.
The man was in his yard, watching a horse go through his paces. He came forward to meet Lionel.
“Mrs. Verner has been talking to you about some ponies, she tells me,” began Lionel. “What are they?”
“A very handsome pair, sir. Just the thing for a lady to drive. They are to be sold for a hundred and fifty pounds. It’s under their value.”
“Yes. They have their mettle about them. Good horses always have, you know, sir. Mrs. Verner has given me the commission.”
“Which I am come to rescind,” replied Lionel, calling up a light smile to his face. “I cannot have my wife’s neck risked by her attempting to drive spirited ponies, Poynton. She knows nothing of driving, is constitutionally timid, and—in short, I do not wish the order executed.”
“Very well, sir,” was the man’s reply. “There’s no harm done. I was at Verner’s Pride with that horse that’s ill, and Mrs. Verner spoke to me about some ponies. It was only to-day I heard these were in the market, and I mentioned them to her. But for all I know, they may be already sold.”
Lionel turned to walk out of the yard.
“After Mrs. Verner shall have learnt to drive, then we shall see: perhaps we may buy a pair,” he remarked. “My opinion is that she will not learn: after a trial or two she will give it up.”
“All right, sir.”
Jan was coming up the road from Deerham as Lionel departed, coming along with his long strides. Lionel advanced leisurely to meet him.
“One would think you were walking for a wager, Jan!”
“Ay,” said Jan. “This is my first round today. Bitterworths’ have sent for me in desperate haste. Folks always get ill at the wrong time.”
“Why don’t you ride?” asked Lionel, turning with Jan, and stepping out at the same pace.
“There was no time to get the horse ready. I can walk it nearly as fast. I have had no breakfast yet.”
“No breakfast!” echoed Lionel.
“I dived into the kitchen and caught up a piece of bread out of the basket. Half my patients must do without me to-day. I have only just got away from Hook’s.”
“How is the girl?”
“In great danger,” replied Jan.
“She is ill, then?”
“So ill that I don’t think she’ll last the day out. The child’s dead. I must cut across the fields back there again, after I have seen what’s amiss at Bitterworth’s.”
The words touching Alice Hook caused quite a shock to Lionel. “It will be a sad thing, Jan, if she should die!”
“I don’t think I can save her. This comes of the ghost. I wonder how many more folks will get frightened to death.”
“Was it really that alone that frightened the girl, and caused her illness? How very absurd the thing sounds! And yet serious.”
“I can’t make it out,” remarked Jan. “Here’s Bourne now, says he saw it. There’s only one solution of the riddle that I can come to.”
“What’s that?” asked Lionel.
“Well,” said Jan, “it’s not a pleasant one.”
“You can tell it me, Jan, pleasant or unpleasant.”
“Not pleasant for you I mean, Lionel. I’ll tell you if you like.”
Lionel looked at him.
“I think it must be Fred Massingbird himself.”
The answer appeared to take Lionel by surprise. Possibly he had not admitted the doubt.
“Fred Massingbird himself! I don’t understand you, Jan.”
“Fred himself, in life,” repeated Jan. “I fancy it will turn out that he did not die in Australia. He may have been very ill perhaps, and they fancied him dead: and now he is well, and has come over.”
Every vestige of colour forsook Lionel’s face.
“Jan!” he uttered, partly in terror, partly in anger. “Jan!” he repeated from between his bloodless lips. “Have you thought of the position in which your hint would place my wife?—the reflection it would cast upon her? How dare you?”
“You told me to speak,” was Jan’s composed answer. “I said you’d not like it. Speaking of it, or keeping silence, won’t make it any the better, Lionel.”
“What could possess you to think of such a thing?”
“There’s nothing else that I can think of. Look here! Is there such a thing as a ghost? Is that probable?”
“Nonsense! No,” said Lionel.
“Then what can it be, unless it’s Fred himself? Lionel, were I you, I’d look the matter full in the face. It is Fred Massingbird, or it is not. If not, the sooner the mystery is cleared up the better, and the fellow brought to book and punished. It’s not to be submitted to that he is to stride about for his own pastime, terrifying people to their injury. Is Alice Hook’s life nothing? Were Dan Duff’s senses nothing?—and, upon my word, I once thought there was good-by to them.”
Lionel did not answer. Jan continued.
“If it is Fred himself, the fact can’t be long concealed. He’ll be sure to make himself known. Why he should not do it at once, I can’t imagine. Unless—”
“Unless what?” asked Lionel.
“Well, you are so touchy on all points relating to Sibylla, that one hesitates to speak,” continued Jan. “I was going to say, unless he fears the shock to Sibylla; and would let her be prepared for it by degrees.”
“Jan,” gasped Lionel, “it would kill her.”
“No it wouldn’t,” dissented Jan. “She’s not one to be killed by emotion of any sort. Or much stirred by it, as I believe, if you care for my opinion. It would not be pleasant for you or for her, but she’d not die of it.”
Lionel wiped the moisture from his face. From the moment Jan had first spoken, a conviction seemed to arise within him that the suggestion would turn out to be only too true a one—that the ghost, in point of fact, was Frederick Massingbird in life.
“This is awful!” he murmured. “I would sacrifice my own life to save Sibylla from pain.”
“Where’d be the good of that?” asked practical Jan. “If it is Fred Massingbird in the flesh, she’s his wife and not yours: your sacrificing yourself—as you call it, Lionel—would not make her any the less or the more so. I am abroad a good deal at night, especially now when there’s so much sickness about, and I shall perhaps come across the fellow. Won’t I pin him if I get the chance.”
“Jan,” said Lionel, catching hold of his brother’s arm to detain him as he was speeding away, for they had reached the gate of Verner’s Pride, “be cautious that not a breath of this suspicion escapes you. For my poor wife’s sake.”
“No fear,” answered Jan. “If it gets about, it won’t be from me, mind. I am going to believe in the ghost henceforth, you understand. Except to you and Bourne.”
“If it gets about,” mechanically answered Lionel, repeating the words which made most impression upon his mind. “You think it will?”
“Think! It’s safe to,” answered Jan. “Had old Frost, and Dan Duff, and Cheese, not been great gulls, they’d have taken it for Fred himself; not his ghost. Bourne suspects. From a hint he dropped to me just now at Hook’s, I find he takes the same view of the case that I do.”
“Since when have you suspected this, Jan?”
“Not for many hours. Don’t keep me, Lionel. Bitterworth may be dying, for aught I know, and so may Alice Hook.”
Jan went on like a steam-engine. Lionel remained, standing at his entrance-gate, more like a prostrate being than a living man.
Thought after thought crowded upon him. If it was really Frederick Massingbird in life, how was it that he had not made his appearance before? Where had he been all this while? Considerably more than two years had elapsed since the supposed death. To the best of Lionel’s recollection, Sibylla had said Captain Cannonby buried her husband: but it was a point into which Lionel had never minutely inquired. Allow that Jan’s suggestion was correct—that he did not die—where had he been since? What had prevented him joining or seeking his wife? What prevented him doing it now? From what motive could he lie in concealment in the neighbourhood, stealthily prowling about at night? Why did he not appear openly? Oh it could not,—it could not be Frederick Massingbird.
Which way should he bend his steps? Indoors, or away? Not indoors! He could scarcely bear to see his wife with this dreadful uncertainty upon him. Restless, anxious, perplexed, miserable, Lionel Verner turned towards Deerham.
There are some natures upon whom a secret, awful as this, tells with appalling force, rendering it next to impossible to keep silence. The imparting it to some friend, the speaking of it, appears to be a matter of dire necessity—and so it was in this instance to Lionel Verner.
He was on his way to the vicarage. Jan had mentioned that Mr. Bourne shared the knowledge—if knowledge it could be called: and he was one in whom might be placed entire trust.
He walked onwards, like one in a fever dream, nodding mechanically in answer to salutations; answering he knew not what if words were spoken to him. The vicarage joined the churchyard, and the vicar was standing in the latter as Lionel came up, watching two men who were digging a grave. He crossed over the mounds to shake hands with Lionel.
Lionel drew him into the vicarage garden, amidst the trees. It was shady there; the outer world shut out from eye and ear.
“I can’t beat about the bush; I can’t dissemble,” began Lionel, in deep agitation. “Tell me your true opinion of this business, for the love of heaven! I have come down to you for it.”
The vicar paused. “My dear friend, I feel almost afraid to give it to you.”
“I have been speaking with Jan. He thinks it may be Frederick Massingbird—not dead, but alive.”
“I fear it is,” answered the clergyman. “Within the last half-hour I have fully believed that it is.”
Lionel leaned his back against a tree, his arms folded. Tolerably calm outwardly: but he could not get the healthy blood back to his face. “Why within the last half-hour more than before?” he asked. “Has anything fresh happened?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Bourne. “I went down to Hook’s: the girl’s not expected to live the day through—but that you may have heard from Jan. In coming away, your gamekeeper met me. He stopped, and began asking my advice in a mysterious manner—whether, if a secret affecting his master had come to his knowledge, he ought, or ought not, to impart it to his master. I felt sure what the man was driving at—that it could be no other thing than this ghost affair—and gave him a hint to speak out to me in confidence. Which he did.”
“Well?” rejoined Lionel.
“He said,” continued Mr. Bourne, lowering his voice, “that he passed a man last night who, he was perfectly certain, was Frederick Massingbird. Not Frederick Massingbird’s ghost, as foolish people were fancying, Broom added, but Massingbird himself. He was in doubt whether or not it was his duty to acquaint Mr. Verner: and so he asked me. I bade him not acquaint you,” continued the vicar, “but to bury the suspicion within his own breast, breathing a word to none.”
Evidence upon evidence! Every moment brought less loop-hole of escape for Lionel to lean upon. “How can it be?” he gasped. “If he is not dead, where can he have been all this while?”
“I conclude it will turn out to be one of those every-day occurrences that have little marvel at all in them. My thoughts were busy upon it, while standing over the grave yonder. I suppose he must have been to the Diggings. Possibly laid up there from illness, and letters may have miscarried.”
“You feel little doubt upon the fact itself—that it is Frederick Massingbird?”
“I feel none. It is certainly he. Won’t you come in and sit down?”
“No, no,” said Lionel. And, drawing his hand from the vicar’s, he went forth again, he, and his heavy weight. Frederick Massingbird alive!