Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 23
BY THE AUTHORESS OF "EAST LYNNE."
CHAPTER XLV. LOOKING OUT FOR THE WORST.
The night passed quietly at Verner’s Pride. Not, for all its inmates, pleasantly. Faithful Tynn bolted and barred the doors and windows with his own hand, like he might have done on the anticipated invasion of a burglar; and then took up his station to watch the approaches to the house, and never stirred till morning light. There may have run in Tynn’s mind some vague fear of violence, should his master and Frederick Massingbird come in contact.
How did Lionel pass it? Wakeful and watchful as Tynn. He went to bed; but sleep, for him, there was none. His wife, by his side, slept all through the night. Better, of course, for her that it should be so: but, that her frame of mind could be sufficiently easy to admit of sleep, was a perfect marvel to Lionel. Had he needed proof to convince him how shallow was her mind, how incapable she was of depth of feeling, of thought, this would have supplied it. She slept throughout the night. Lionel never closed his eyes: his brain was at work, his mind was troubled, his heart was aching. Not for himself. His position was certainly not one to be envied: but, in his great anxiety for his wife, self passed out of sight. To what conflict might she not be about to be exposed! to what unseemly violence of struggle, outwardly and inwardly, might she not expose herself! He knew quite well that, according to the laws of God and man, she was Frederick Massingbird’s wife; not his. He should never think—when the time came—of disputing Frederick Massingbird’s claim to her. But, what would she do?—how would she act? He believed, in his honest heart, that Sibylla, in spite of her aggravations shown to him, and whatever may have been her preference for Frederick Massingbird in the early days, best cared for him, Lionel, now. He believed that she would not willingly return to Frederick Massingbird. Or, if she did, it would be for the sake of Verner’s Pride.
He was right. Heartless, selfish, vain, and ambitious, Verner’s Pride possessed far more attraction for Sibylla than did either Lionel or Frederick Massingbird. Allow her to keep quiet possession of that, and she would not cast much thought to either of them. If the conflict actually came, Lionel felt, in his innate refinement, that the proper course for Sibylla to adopt would be to retire from all social ties, partially to retire from the world—as Miss West had suggested she should do now in the uncertainty. Lionel did not wholly agree with Miss West. He deemed that, in the uncertainty, Sibylla’s place was by his side, still his wife: but, when once the uncertainty was set at rest by the actual appearance of Frederick Massingbird, then let her retire. It was the one only course that he could pursue, were the case his own. His mind was made up upon one point—to withdraw himself out of the way when that time came. To India, to the wilds of Africa—anywhere far, far away. Never would he remain to be an eye-sore to Sibylla or Frederick Massingbird,—inhabiting the land that they inhabited, breathing the air that sustained life in them. Sibylla might rely on one thing—that when Frederick Massingbird did appear beyond doubt or dispute, that very hour he said adieu to Sibylla. The shock soothed—and he would soothe it for her to the very utmost of his power—he should depart. He would be no more capable of retaining Sibylla in the face of her first husband, than he could have taken her, knowingly, from that husband in his lifetime.
But where was Frederick Massingbird? Tynn’s opinion had been—he had told it to his master—that when he saw Frederick Massingbird steal into the grounds of Verner’s Pride the previous evening, he was coming on to the house, there and then. Perhaps Lionel himself had entertained the same conviction. But the night had passed, and no Frederick Massingbird had come. What could be the meaning of it? What could be the meaning of his dodging about Deerham in this manner, frightening the inhabitants?—of his watching the windows of Verner’s Pride? Verner’s Pride was his; Sibylla was his; why, then, did he not arrive to assume his rights?
Agitated with these and many other conflicting thoughts, Lionel lay on his uneasy bed, and saw in the morning light. He did not rise until his usual hour: he would have risen far earlier but for the fear of disturbing Sibylla. To lie there, a prey to these reflections, to this terrible suspense, was intolerable to him, but he would not risk the waking her. The day might prove long enough and bad enough for her, without arousing her to it before her time. He rose, but she slept on still: Lionel did wonder how she could.
Not until he was going out of the room, dressed, did she awake. She awoke with a start. It appeared as if recollection, or partial recollection, of the last night’s trouble flashed over her. She pushed aside the curtain, and called to him in a sharp tone of terror.
He turned back. He drew the curtain entirely away, and stood by her side. She caught his arm, clasping it convulsively.
“Is it a dreadful dream, or is it true?” she uttered, beginning to tremble. “Oh, Lionel, take care of me! Won’t you take care of me?”
“I will take care of you as long as ever I may,” he whispered, tenderly.
“You will not let him force me away from you? You will not give up Verner’s Pride? If you care for me, you will not.”
“I do care for you,” he gently said, avoiding a more direct answer. “My whole life is occupied in caring for you, in promoting your happiness and comfort. How I have cared for you, you alone know.”
She burst into tears. Lionel bent his lips upon her hot face.
“Depend upon my doing all that I can do,” he said.
“Are you going to leave me by myself?” she resumed, in fear, as he was turning to quit the room. “How do I know but he may be bursting in upon me?”
“Is that all your faith in me, Sibylla? He shall not intrude upon you here: he shall not intrude upon you anywhere without warning. When he does come, I shall be at your side.”
Lionel joined his guests at breakfast. His wife did not. With smiling lips and bland brow, he had to cover a mind full of intolerable suspense, an aching heart. A minor puzzle—though nothing compared to the puzzle touching the movements of Frederick Massingbird—was working within him, as to the movements of Captain Cannonby. What could have become of that gentleman? Where could he be halting on his journey? Had his halt anything to do with them, with this grievous business?
To Lionel’s great surprise, just as they were concluding breakfast, he saw the close carriage driven to the door, attended by Wigham and Bennet. You may remember the latter name. Master Dan Duff had called him “Calves” to Mr. Verner. If Verner’s Pride could not keep its masters, it kept its servants. Lionel knew he had not ordered it; and he supposed his wife to be still in bed. He went out to the men.
“For whom is the carriage ordered, Bennet?”
“For my mistress, I think, sir.”
And at that moment Lionel heard the steps of his wife upon the stairs. She was coming down, dressed. He turned in, and met her in the hall.
“Are you going out?” he cried, his voice betokening surprise.
“I can’t be worried with this uncertainty,” was Sibylla’s answer, spoken anything but courteously. “I am going to make Deborah tell me all she knows, and where she heard it.”
“I won’t be dictated to, Lionel,” she querulously stopped him with. “I will go. What is it to you?”
He turned without a remonstrance, and attended her to the carriage, placing her in it as considerately as though she had met him with a wife’s loving words. When she was seated, he leaned towards her.
“Would you like me to accompany you, Sibylla?”
“I don’t care about it.”
He closed the door in silence, his lips compressed. There were times when her fitful moods vexed him above common. This was one. When they knew not but the passing hour might be the last of their union, the last they should ever spend together, it was scarcely seemly to mar its harmony with ill-temper. At least, so felt Lionel. Sibylla spoke as he was turning away.
“Of course I thought you would go with me. I did not expect you would grumble at me for going.”
“Get my hat, Bennet,” he said. And he stepped in and took his seat beside her.
Courteously and smiling, as though not a shade of care were within ages of him, Lionel bowed to his guests as the carriage passed the breakfast-room windows. He saw that curious faces were directed to him; he felt that wondering comments, as to their early and sudden drive, were being spoken; he knew that the scene of the past evening was affording food for speculation. He could not help it; but these minor annoyances were as nothing, compared to the great trouble that absorbed him. The windows passed, he turned to his wife.
“I have neither grumbled at you for going, Sibylla; nor do I see cause for grumbling. Why should you charge me with it?”
“There! you are going to find fault with me again! Why are you so cross?”
Cross! He cross! Lionel suppressed at once the retort that was rising to his lips; as he had done hundreds of times before.
“Heaven knows, nothing was further from my thoughts than to be ‘cross,’” he answered, his tone full of pain. “Were I to be cross to you, Sibylla, in—in—what may be our last hour together, I should reflect upon myself for my whole life afterwards.”
“It is not our last hour together!” she vehemently answered. “Who says it is?”
“I trust it is not. But I cannot conceal from myself the fact that it may be so. Remember,” he added, turning to her with a sudden impulse, and clasping both her hands within his in a firm, impressive grasp—“remember that my whole life, since you became mine, has been spent for you: in promoting your happiness; in striving to give you more love than has been given to me. I have never met you with an unkind word; I have never given you a clouded look. You will think of this when we are separated. And, for myself, its remembrance will be to my conscience as a healing balm.”
Dropping her hands, he drew back to his corner of the chariot, his head leaning against the fair white watered silk, as if heavy with weariness. In truth, it was so: heavy with the weariness caused by carking care. He had spoken all too impulsively: the avowal was wrung from him in the moment’s bitter strife. A balm upon his conscience that he had done his duty by her in love? Ay. For, the love of his inmost heart had been another’s—not hers.
Sibylla did not understand the allusion. It was well. In her weak and trifling manner, she was subsiding into tears when the carriage suddenly stopped. Lionel, his thoughts never free, since a day or two, of Frederick Massingbird, looked up with a start, almost expecting to see him.
Lady Verner’s groom had been galloping on horseback to Verner’s Pride. Seeing Mr. Verner’s carriage, and himself inside it, he had made a sign to Wigham, who drew up. The man rode up to the window, a note in his hand.
“Miss Verner charged me to lose no time in delivering it to you, sir. She said it was immediate. I shouldn’t else have presumed to stop your carriage.”
He backed his horse a step or two, waiting for the answer, should there be any. Lionel ran his eyes over the contents of the note.
“Tell Miss Verner I will call upon her shortly, Philip.”
And the man, touching his hat, turned his horse round, and galloped back towards Deerham Court.
“What does she want? What is it?” impatiently asked Sibylla.
“My mother wishes to see me,” replied Lionel.
“And what else? I know that’s not all,” reiterated Sibylla, her tone a resentful one. “You have always secrets at Deerham Court against me.”
“Never in my life,” he answered. “You can read the note, Sibylla.”
She caught it up, devouring its few lines rapidly. Lionel believed it must be the doubt, the uncertainty, that was rendering her so irritable: in his heart he felt inclined to make every allowance for her; more perhaps than she deserved. There were but a few lines:
“Do come to us at once, my dear Lionel! A most strange report has reached us, and mamma is like one bereft of her senses. She wants you here to contradict it: she says, she knows it cannot have any foundation.
Somehow the words seemed to subdue Sibylla’s irritation. She returned the note to Lionel, and spoke in a hushed, gentle tone.
“Is it this report that she alludes to, do you think, Lionel?”
“I fear so. I do not know what other it can be. I am vexed that it should already have reached the ears of my mother.”
“Of course!” resentfully spoke Sibylla. “You would have spared her!”
“I would have spared my mother, had it been in my power. I would have spared my wife,” he added, bending his grave, kind face towards her, “that and all other ill.”
She dashed down the front blinds of the carriage, and laid her head upon his bosom, sobbing repentantly.
“You would bear with me, Lionel, if you knew the pain I have here”—touching her chest. “I am sick and ill with fright.”
He did not answer that he did bear with her, bear with her most patiently—as he might have done. He only placed his arm round her that she might feel its shelter; and, with his gentle fingers, pushed the golden curls away from her cheeks, for her tears were wetting them.
She went into her sister’s house alone. She preferred to do so. The carriage took Lionel on to Deerham Court. He dismissed it when he alighted; ordering Wigham back to Miss West’s, to await the pleasure of his mistress.
Lionel had, probably, obeyed the summons sooner than was expected by Lady Verner and Decima; sooner, perhaps, than they deemed he could have obeyed it. Neither of them was in the breakfast-room: no one was there but Lucy Tempest.
By the very way in which she looked at him, the flushed cheeks, the eager eyes, he saw that the tidings had reached her. She timidly held out her hand to him, her anxious gaze meeting his. Whatever may have been the depth of feeling entertained for him, Lucy was too single-minded not to express all she felt of sympathy.
“Is it true?” were her first whispered words, offering no other salutation.
“Is what true, Lucy?” he asked. “How am I to know what you mean?”
They stood looking at each other. Lionel waiting for her to speak; she, hesitating. Until Lionel was perfectly certain that she alluded to that particular report, he would not speak of it. Lucy moved a few steps from him, and stood nervously playing with the ends of her waist-band, the soft colour rising deeper in her cheeks.
“I do not like to tell you,” she said, simply. “It would not be a pleasant thing for you to hear, if it be not true.”
“And still less pleasant for me, if it be true,” he replied, the words bringing him conviction that the rumour they had heard was no other. “I fear it is true, Lucy.”
“That—some one—has come back?”
“Some one who was supposed to be dead.”
The avowal seemed to take from her all hope. Her hands fell listlessly by her side, and the tears rose to her eyes.
“I am so sorry!” she breathed. “I am so sorry for you, and for—for—”
“My wife. Is that what you were going to say?”
“Yes, it is. I did not like much to say it. I am truly grieved. I wish I could have helped it!”
“Ah! you are not a fairy with an all-powerful wand yet, Lucy, as we read of in children’s books. It is a terrible blow, for her and for me. Do you know how the rumour reached my mother?”
“I think it was through the servants. Some of them heard it, and old Catherine told her. Lady Verner has been like any one wild: but for Decima, she would have started—”
Lucy’s voice died away. Gliding in at the door, with a white face and drawn-back lips, was Lady Verner. She caught hold of Lionel, her eyes searching his countenance for the confirmation of her fears, or their contradiction. Lionel bent his face on hers.
“It is true, mother. Be brave for my sake.”
With a wailing cry she sat down on the sofa, drawing him beside her. Decima entered and stood before them, her hands clasped in pain.
She, Lady Verner, made him tell her all the particulars: all he knew, all he feared.
“How does Sibylla meet it?” was her first question when she had listened to the end.
“Not very well,” he answered, after a momentary hesitation. “Who could meet it well?”
“Lionel, it is a judgment upon her. She—”
Lionel started up, his brow flushing.
“I beg your pardon, mother. You forget that you are speaking of my wife. She is my wife,” he more calmly added, “until she shall have been proved not to be.”
No. Whatever may have been Sibylla’s conduct to him personally, neither before her face nor behind her back, would Lionel forget one jot of the respect due to her. Or suffer another to forget it; although that other should be his mother.
“What shall you do with her, Lionel?”
“Do with her?” he repeated, not understanding how to take the question.
“When the man makes himself known?”
“I am content to leave that to the time,” replied Lionel, in a tone that debarred further mention.
“I knew no good would come of it,” resumed Lady Verner, persistent in expressing her opinion. “But for the wiles of that girl you might have married happily, might have married Mary Elmsley.”
“Mother, there is trouble enough upon us just now without introducing old vexations,” rejoined Lionel. “I have told you, before, that had I never set eyes upon Sibylla after she married Frederick Massingbird, Mary Elmsley would not have been my wife.”
“If he comes back, he comes back to Verner’s Pride?” pursued Lady Verner, in a low tone, breaking the pause which had ensued.
“Yes. Verner’s Pride is his.”
“And what shall you do? Turned, like a beggar, out on the face of the earth?”
Like a beggar? Ay, far more like a beggar than Lady Verner, in her worst apprehension, could picture.
“I must make my way on the earth as I best can,” he replied in answer. “I shall leave Europe. Probably for India. I may find some means, through my late father’s friends, of getting my bread there.”
Lady Verner appeared to appreciate the motive which no doubt dictated the suggested course. She did not attempt to controvert it; she only wrung her hands in passionate wailing.
“Oh, that you had not married her! that you had not subjected yourself to this dreadful blight!”
Lionel rose. There were limits of endurance even for his aching heart. Reproaches in a moment of trouble are as cold iron entering the soul.
“I will come in another time when you are more yourself, mother,” was all he said. “I could have borne sympathy from you, this morning, better than complaint.”
He shook hands with her. He laid his hand in silence on Decima’s shoulder with a fond pressure as he passed her; her face was turned from him, the tears silently streaming down it. He nodded to Lucy, who stood at the other end of the room, and went out. But, ere he was half-way across the ante-room, he heard hasty footsteps behind him. He turned to behold Lucy Tempest, her hands extended, her face streaming down with tears.
“Oh, Lionel, please not to go away thinking nobody sympathises with you! I am so grieved: I am so sorry! If I can do anything for you, or for Sibylla, to lighten the distress, I will do it.”
He took the pretty, pleading hands in his, bending his face until it was nearly on a level with hers. But, that emotion nearly overmastered him in the moment’s anguish, the very consciousness, that he might be free from married obligations, would have rendered his manner cold to Lucy Tempest. Whether Frederick Massingbird was alive or not, he must be a man isolated from other wedded ties, so long as Sibylla remained on the earth. The kind young face, held up to him in its grief, disarmed his reserve. He spoke out to Lucy as freely as he had done in that long-ago illness, when she was his full confidant. Nay, whether from her looks, or from some lately untouched chord in his memory re-awakened, that old time was before him now, rather than the present. As his next words proved.
“Lucy, with one thing and another, my heart is half broken. I wish I had died in that illness. Better for me! Better—perhaps—for you.”
“Not for me,” said she, through her tears. “Do not think of me. I wish I could help you in this great sorrow!”
“Help from you of any sort, Lucy, I forfeited in my blind wilfulness,” he hoarsely whispered. “God bless you!” he added, wringing her hands to pain. “God bless you for ever.”
She did not loose them. He was about to draw his hands away, but she held them still, her tears and sobs nearly choking her.
“You spoke of India. If it is that land that you will choose for your exile, go to papa. He may be able to do great things for you. And, if in his power, he would do them, for Sir Lionel Verner’s sake. Papa longs to know you. He always says so much about you in his letters to me.”
“You have never told me so, Lucy.”
“I thought it better not to talk to you too much,” she simply said. “And you have not been always at Verner’s Pride.”
Lionel looked at her, holding her hands still. She knew how futile it was to affect ignorance of truths in that moment of unreserve; she knew that her mind and its feelings were as clear to Lionel as though she had been made of glass, and she spoke freely in her open simplicity. She knew—probably—that his deepest love and esteem were given to her. Lionel knew it, if she did not; knew it to his very heart’s core. He could only reiterate his prayer, as he finally turned from her—
“God bless you, Lucy, for ever, and for ever!”
CHAPTER XLVI. CAPTAIN CANNONBY.
Deerham abounded in inns. How they all contrived to get a living, nobody could imagine. That they did jog along somehow, was evident; but they appeared to be generally as void of bustle as were their lazy sign-boards, basking in the sun on a summer’s day. The best in the place, one with rather more pretension to superiority than the rest, was the Golden Fleece. It was situated at the entrance to Deerham, not far from the railway station; not far either from Deerham Court: in fact, between Deerham Court and the village.
As Lionel approached it, he saw the landlord standing at its entrance—John Cox. A rubicund man, with a bald head, who evidently did justice to his own good cheer, if visitors did not. Shading his eyes with one hand, he had the other extended in the direction of the village, as if he were pointing out the way to a strange gentleman who stood beside him.
“Go as straight as you can go, sir, through the village, and for a goodish distance beyond it,” he was saying, as Lionel drew within hearing. “It will bring you to Verner’s Pride. You can’t mistake it: it’s the only mansion thereabouts.”
The words caused Lionel to cast a rapid glance at the stranger. He saw a man of some five-and-thirty or forty years, fair of complexion once, but bronzed now by travel, or other causes. The landlord’s eyes fell on Lionel.
“Here is Mr. Verner!” he hastily exclaimed. “Sir,”—saluting Lionel—“this gentleman was going up to you at Verner’s Pride.”
The stranger turned, holding out his hand in a free and pleasant manner to Lionel. “My name is Cannonby.”
“I could have known it by the likeness to your brother,” said Lionel, shaking him by the hand. “I saw him yesterday. I was in town, and he told me you were coming. But why were you not with us last night?”
“I turned aside on my journey to see an old military friend—whom, by the way, I found to be out—and did not get to Deerham till past ten,” explained Captain Cannonby. “I thought it too late to invade you, so put up here until this morning.”
Lionel linked his arm within Captain Cannonby’s, and drew him onwards. The moment of confirmation was come. His mind was in too sad a state to allow of his beating about the bush: his suspense had been too sharp and urgent for him to prolong it now. He plunged into the matter at once.
“You have come to bring me some unpleasant news, Captain Cannonby. Unhappily, it will be news no longer. But you will give me the confirming particulars.”
Captain Cannonby looked as if he did not understand. “Unpleasant news?” he repeated.
“I speak”—and Lionel lowered his voice—“of Frederick Massingbird. You know, probably, what I would ask. How long have you been cognisant of these unhappy facts?”
“I declare, Mr. Verner, I don’t know what you mean,” was Captain Cannonby’s answer, given in a hearty tone. “To what do you allude?”
Lionel paused. Was it possible that he—Captain Cannonby—was in ignorance? “Tell me one thing,” he said. “Your brother mentioned that you had heard, as he believed, some news connected with me and—and my wife, in Paris, which had caused you to hurry home, and come down to Verner’s Pride. What was that news?”
“The news I heard was, that Mrs. Massingbird had become Mrs. Verner. I had intended to find her out when I got to Europe, if only to apologise for my negligence in not giving her news of John Massingbird or his property—which news I could never gather for myself—but I did not know precisely where she might be. I heard in Paris that she had married you, and was living at Verner’s Pride.”
Lionel drew a long breath.
“And that was all?”
“That was all.”
Then he was in ignorance of it! But, to keep him in ignorance was impossible. Lionel must ask confirmation or non-confirmation of the death. With low voice and rapid speech he mentioned the fears and the facts. Captain Cannonby gathered them in, withdrew his arm from Lionel’s, and stood staring at him.
“Fred Massingbird alive, and come back to England!” he uttered, in bewildered wonder.
“We cannot think otherwise,” replied Lionel.
“Then, Mr. Verner, I tell you that it cannot be. It cannot be, you understand. I saw him die. I saw him laid in the grave.”
They had not walked on. They stood there, looking at each other, absorbed in themselves, oblivious to the attention that might be fixed on them from any stray passers-by. At that moment there were no passers-by to fix it: the bustle of Deerham only began with the houses, and, those, they had not yet reached.
“I would give all my future life to believe you,” earnestly spoke Lionel; “to believe that there can be no mistake. For my wife’s sake.”
“There is no mistake,” reiterated Captain Cannonby. “I saw him dead; I saw him buried. A parson, in the company halting there, read the burial service over him.”
“You may have buried him, fancying he was dead,” suggested Lionel, giving utterance to some of the wild thoughts of his imaginings. “And—forgive me for bringing forward such pictures—the mistake may have been discovered in time—and—”
“It could not be,” interrupted Captain Cannonby. “I am quite certain he was dead. Let us allow, if you will, for argument’s sake, that he was not dead when he was put into the ground. Five minutes’ lying there, with the weight of earth upon him, would have effectually destroyed life; had any been left in him to destroy. There was no coffin, you must remember.”
“Parties to the gold-fields don’t carry a supply of coffins with them. If death occurs en route, it has to be provided for in the simplest and most practical form. At least, I can answer that such was the case with regard to Fred Massingbird. He was buried in the clothes he wore when he died.”
Lionel was lost in abstraction.
“He died at early dawn, just as the sun burst out to illumine the heavens, and at mid-day he was buried,” continued Captain Cannonby. “I saw him buried. I saw the earth shovelled in upon him; nay, I helped to shovel it. I left him there; we all left him, covered over; at rest, for good, in this world. Mr. Verner, dismiss this great fear; rely upon it that he was, and is, dead.”
“I wish I could rely upon it!” spoke Lionel. “The fear, I may say the certainty, has been so unequivocally impressed upon my belief, that a doubt must remain until it is explained who walks about, bearing his outward appearance. He was a very remarkable-looking man, you know. The black mark on his cheek alone would render him so.”
“And that black mark is visible upon the cheek of the person who is seen at night?”
“Conspicuously so. This ghost—as it is taken for—has nearly frightened one or two lives away. It is very strange.”
“Can it be anybody got up to personate Fred Massingbird?”
“Unless it be himself, that is the most feasible interpretation,” observed Lionel. “But it does not alter the mystery. It is not only in the face and the black mark that the likeness is discernible, but in the figure also. In fact, in all points this man bears the greatest resemblance to Frederick Massingbird,—at least, if the eyes of those who have seen him may be trusted. My own butler saw him last night; the man passed close before him, turning his face to him in the moment of passing. He says there can be no doubt that it is Frederick Massingbird.”
Captain Cannonby felt a little staggered. “If it should turn out to be Frederick Massingbird, all I can say is, that I shall never believe anybody’s dead again. It will be like an incident in a drama. I should next expect my old father would come to life, who has lain these twelve years past at Kensal Green Cemetery. Does Mrs. Verner know of this?”
“She does, unfortunately. She was told of it during my absence yesterday. I should have wished it kept from her, until we were at some certainty.”
“Oh, come, Mr. Verner, take heart!” impulsively cried Captain Cannonby, all the improbabilities of the case striking forcibly upon him. “The thing is not possible; it is not indeed.”
“At any rate your testimony will be so much comfort for my wife,” returned Lionel, gladly. “It has comforted me. If my fears are not entirely dispelled, there’s something done towards it.”
Arrived at the Belvedere Road, Lionel looked about for his carriage. He could not see it. At that moment Jan turned out of the surgery. Lionel asked him if he had seen Sibylla.
“She is gone home,” replied Jan. “She and Miss Deb split upon some rock, and Sibylla got into her carriage, and went off in anger.”
He was walking away, with his usual rapid strides on his way to some patient, when Lionel caught hold of him. “Jan, this is Captain Cannonby. The friend who was with Frederick Massingbird when he died. He assures me that he is dead. Dead and buried. My brother, Captain Cannonby.”
“There cannot be a doubt of it,” said Captain Cannonby, alluding to the death. “I saw him die; I helped to bury him.”
“Then who is it that walks about, dressed up as his ghost?” debated Jan.
“I cannot tell,” said Lionel, a severe expression arising to his lips. I begin to think with Captain Cannonby; that there can be no doubt that Frederick Massingbird is dead; therefore, he, it is not. But that it would be undesirable, for my wife’s sake, to make this doubt public, I would have every house in the place searched. Whoever it may be, he is concealed in one of them.”
“Little doubt of that,” nodded Jan. “I’ll pounce upon him, if I get the chance.”
Lionel and Captain Cannonby continued their way to Verner’s Pride. The revived hope, in Lionel’s mind, strengthened with every step they took. It did seem utterly impossible, looking at it from a practical, matter-of-fact point of view, that a man buried deep in the earth, and supposed to be dead before he was placed there, could come to life again.
“What a relief for Sibylla!” he involuntarily cried, drawing a long, relieved breath on his own score. “This must be just one of those cases, Captain Cannonby, when good Catholics, in the old days, made a vow to the Virgin, of so many valuable offerings, should the dread be removed, and turn out to have been no dread at all.”
“Ay. I should like to be in at the upshot.”
“I hope you will be. You must not run away from us immediately. Where’s your luggage?”
Captain Cannonby laughed.
“Talk to a returned gold-digger of his ‘luggage!’ Mine consists of a hand portmanteau, and that is at the Golden Fleece. I can order it up here if you’d like me to stay with you a few days. I should enjoy some shooting beyond everything.”
“That is settled then,” said Lionel. “I will see that you have your portmanteau. Did you get rich at the Diggings?”
The captain shook his head.
“I might have made something, had I stuck at it. But I grew sick of it altogether. My brother, the doctor, makes a sight of money, and I can get what I want from him,” was the candid confession.
“These rich brothers in reserve are a terrible lag upon self-exertion. Here we are!” he added, as they turned in at the gates. “This is Verner’s Pride.”
“What a fine place!” exclaimed Captain Cannonby, bringing his steps to a halt as he gazed at it.
“Yes it is. Not a pleasant prospect, was it, to contemplate the being turned out of it by a dead man.”
“A dead—You do not mean to say that Frederick Massingbird—if in life—would be the owner of Verner’s Pride?”
“Yes, he would be. I was its rightful heir, and why my uncle willed it away from me, to one who was no blood relation, has remained a mystery to this day. Frederick Massingbird succeeded, to my exclusion. I only came into it with his death.”
Captain Cannonby appeared completely thunderstruck at the revelation.
“Why, then,” he cried, after a pause, “this may supply the very motive-power that is wanted, for one to personate Fred Massingbird.”
“Scarcely,” replied Lionel. “No ghost, or seeming ghost, walking about in secret at night, could get Verner’s Pride resigned to him. He must come forward in the broad face of day, and establish his identity by indisputable proof.”
“True, true. Well, it is a curious tale! I should like, as I say, to witness the winding-up.”
Lionel looked about for his wife. He could not find her. But few of their guests were in the rooms; they had dispersed somewhere or other. He went up to Sibylla’s dressing-room, but she was not there. Mademoiselle Benoite was coming along the corridor as he left it again.
“Do you know where your mistress is?” he asked.
“Mais certainement,” responded Mademoiselle. “Monsieur will find Madame at the archerie.”
He bent his steps to the targets. On the lawn, flitting amidst the other fair archers, in her dress of green and gold, was Sibylla. All traces of care had vanished from her face, her voice was of the merriest, her step of the fleetest, her laugh of the lightest. Truly Lionel marvelled. There flashed into his mind the grieving face of another, whom he had not long ago parted from; grieving for their woes. Better for his mind’s peace that these contrasts had not been forced so continually upon him!
Could she, in some unaccountable manner, have heard the consoling news that Cannonby brought? In the first moment, he thought it must be so: in the next, he knew it to be impossible. Smothering down a sigh, he went forward, and drew her apart from the rest; choosing that covered walk where he had spoken to her a day or two previously, regarding Mrs. Duff’s bill. Taking her hands in his, he stood before her, looking with a reassuring smile into her face.
“What will you give me for some good news, Sibylla?”
“What about?” she rejoined.
“Need you ask? There is one only point upon which news could greatly interest either of us just now. I have seen Cannonby. He is here, and—”
“Here! At Verner’s Pride!” she interrupted. “Oh, I shall like to see Cannonby: to talk over old Australian times with him.”
Who was to account for her capricious moods? Lionel remembered the evening, during the very moon not yet dark to the earth, when Sibylla had made a scene in the drawing-room, saying she could not bear to hear the name of Cannonby, or to be reminded of the past days in Melbourne. She was turning to fly to the house, but Lionel caught her.
“Wait, wait, Sibylla! Will you not hear the good tidings I have for you? Cannonby says there cannot be a doubt that Frederick Massingbird is dead. He left him dead and buried; as he told you in Melbourne. We have been terrified and pained—I trust—for nothing.”
“Lionel, look here,” said she, receiving the assurance in the same equable manner that she might have heard him assert it was a fine day, or a wet one, “I have been making up my mind not to let this bother worry me. That wretched old maid Deborah went on to me with such rubbish this morning about leaving you, about leaving Verner’s Pride, that she vexed me to anger. I came home and cried; and Benoite found me lying upon the sofa; and when I told her what it was, she said, the best plan was, not to mind, to meet it with a laugh instead of tears——”
“Sibylla!” he interposed, in a tone of pain. “You surely did not make a confidant of Benoite!”
“Of course I did,” she answered, looking as if surprised at his question, his tone. “Why not? Benoite cheered me up, I can tell you, better than you do. ‘What matter to cry?’ she asked. ‘If he does come back, you will still be the mistress of Verner’s Pride.’ And so I shall.”
Lionel let go her hands. She sped off to the house, eager to find Captain Cannonby. He—her husband—leaned against the trunk of a tree, bitter mortification in his face, bitter humiliation in his heart. Was this the wife to whom he had bound himself for ever? Well could he echo in that moment Lady Verner’s reiterated assertion, that she was not worthy of him. With a stifled sigh, that was more like a groan, he turned to follow her.
“Be still, be still!” he murmured, beating his hand upon his bosom, that he might still its pain. “Let me bear on, doing my duty by her always in love!”
That pretty Mrs. Jocelyn ran up to Lionel, and intercepted his path. Mrs. Jocelyn would have liked to intercept it more frequently than she did, if she had but received a little encouragement. She tried hard for it, but it never came. One habit, at any rate, Lionel Verner had not acquired, amid the many strange examples of an artificial age—that of not paying considerate respect, both in semblance and reality, to other men’s wives.
“Oh, Mr. Verner, what a truant you are! You never come to pick up our arrows.”
“Don’t I?” said Lionel, with his courteous smile. “I will come presently if I can. I am in search of Mrs. Verner. She is gone in to welcome a friend who has arrived.”
And Mrs. Jocelyn had to go back to the targets alone.
But it is necessary to turn for an instant to Jan Verner.
There was a good deal of sickness at present in Deerham: there generally was in the autumn season. Many a time did Jan wish he could be master of Verner’s Pride just for twelve months, or of any other “Pride” whose revenues were sufficient to remedy the evils existing in the poor dwellings: the ill accommodation, inside; the ill draining, out. Jan, had that desirable consummation arrived, would not have wasted time in thinking over it; he would have commenced the work in the same hour with his own hands. However, Jan, like most of us, had not to do with things as they might be, but with things as they were. The sickness was great, and Jan, in spite of his horse’s help, was, as he often said, nearly worked off his legs.
He had been hastening to a patient when encountered by Lionel and Captain Cannonby. From that patient he had to hasten to others, in a succession of relays, as it were, all day long: sometimes his own legs in requisition, sometimes the horse’s. About seven o’clock he got home to tea, at which Miss Deborah made him comfortable. Truth to say, Miss Deborah felt rather inclined to regard Jan as a son; to pet him as such. He had gone there a boy, and Miss Deb, though the years since had stolen on and on, had not allowed her ideas to keep pace with them. So do we cheat ourselves! There were times when a qualm of conscience came over Miss Deb. Not that she could alter it, poor thing! Remembering how hard Jan worked, and that her father took more than the lion’s share of the profits, it appeared to her scarcely fair. All she could do was, to be as economical as possible, and to study Jan’s comforts. Now and again she had been compelled to go to Jan for money, over and above the stipulated sum paid to her. Jan gave it as freely and readily as he would have filled Miss Amilly’s glass pot with castor oil. But Deborah West knew that it came out of Jan’s own pocket; and, to ask for it, went terribly against her feelings and her sense of justice.
The tea was over. But she took care of Jan’s. Some nice tea, and toasted tea-cakes, and a plate of ham. Jan sat down by the fire, and, as Miss Deb said, took it in comfort. Truth to say, had Jan found only the remains of the tea-pot and stale bread-and-butter, he might have thought it comfortable enough for him: he would not have grumbled had he found nothing.
“Any fresh messages in, do you know, Miss Deb?” he inquired.
“Now do pray get your tea in peace, Mr. Jan, and don’t worrit yourself over ‘fresh messages,’” responded Miss Deb. “Master Cheese was called out to the surgery at tea-time, but I suppose it was nothing particular, for he was back again directly.”
“Of course!” cried Jan. “He’d not lose his tea without a fight for it.”
Jan finished his tea and departed to the surgery, catching sight of the coat-tails of Mr. Bitterworth’s servant leaving it. Master Cheese was seated with the leech basin before him. It was filled with Orleans plums, of which he was eating with uncommon satisfaction. Liking variations of flavour in fruit, he occasionally diversified the plums with a large sour codlin apple, a dozen or so of which he had got stowed away in his trousers’ pockets. Bob stood at a respectful distance, his eyes wandering to the tempting collation, and his mouth watering. Amongst the apples Master Cheese had come upon one three parts eaten away by the grubs, and this he benevolently threw to Bob. Bob had disposed of it, and was now vainly longing for more.
“What did Bitterworth’s man want?” inquired Jan of Master Cheese.
“The Missis is took bad again, he says,” responded that gentleman, as distinctly as he could speak for the apples and the plums. “Croup, or something. Not as violent as it was before. Can wait.”
“You had better go up at once,” was Jan’s reply.
Master Cheese was taken aback.
“I go up!” he uttered, pulling a face as long as his arm. “All that way! I had to go to Baker’s and to Flint’s between dinner and tea.”
“And to how many Bakers and Flints do I have to go between dinner and tea?” retorted Jan. “You know what to give Mrs. Bitterworth. So, start.”
Master Cheese felt aggrieved beyond everything. For one thing, it might be dangerous to leave those cherished plums in the leech basin, Bob being within arm’s length of them: for another, Master Cheese liked his ease better than walking. He cast some imploring glances at Jan, but they produced no effect, so he had to get his hat. Vacillating between the toll that might be taken of the plums if he left them, and the damage to his hair if he took them, he finally decided on the latter course. Emptying the plums into his hat, he put it on his head. Jan was looking over what they termed the call-book.
“Miss Deb says you were called out at tea-time,” observed Jan, as Master Cheese was departing. “Who was it?”
“Nobody but old Hook. The girl was worse.”
“What! Alice? Why have you not got it down here?” pointing to the book.
“Oh, they are nobody,” grumbled Master Cheese. “I wonder the paupers are not ashamed to come here to our faces, asking for attendance and physic! They know they’ll never pay.”
“That’s my business,” said Jan. “Did he say she was very ill?”
“Took dangerous, he said,” returned Master Cheese. “Thought she’d not live the night out.”
Indefatigable Jan put on his hat, and went out with Master Cheese. Master Cheese turned leisurely towards Mr. Bitterworth’s; Jan cut across the road at a strapping pace, and took the nearest way to Hook’s cottage. It led him past the retired spot where he and the Reverend Mr. Bourne had found Alice lying that former night.
Barely had Jan gained it when some tall, dark form came pushing through the trees at right angles, and was striding off to the distance. One single moment’s indecision—for Jan was not sure at first in the uncertain light—and then he put his long legs to their utmost speed, bore down, and pinned the intruder.
“Now then!” said Jan. “Ghost or no ghost, who are you?”
He was answered by a laugh, and some joking words:
“Don’t throttle me quite, Jan. Even a ghost can’t stand that.”
The tone of the laugh, the tone of the voice, fell upon Jan Verner’s ears with the most intense astonishment. He peered into the speaker’s face with his keen eyes, and gave vent to an exclamation. In spite of the whiskerless cheeks, the elaborate black mark, in spite of the strange likeness to his brother, Jan recognised the features, not of Frederick, but of John, Massingbird.