Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 24
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XLVII. DRESSING UP FOR A GHOST.
And so the mystery was out. And the ghost proved to be no ghost at all,—to be no husband of Sibylla,—come to disturb the peace of her and Lionel; but John Massingbird in real flesh and blood.
There was so much explanation to ask and to be given, that Jan was somewhat hindered on his way to Hook’s.
“I can’t stop,” said he, in the midst of a long sentence of John’s, “Alice Hook may be dying. Will you remain here till I come back?”
“If you are not long,” responded John Massingbird. “I intend this to be the last night of my concealment, and I want to go about, terrifying the natives. The fun it has been!”
“Fun, you call it!” remarked Jan. “If Hook’s girl does die, it will lie at your door.”
“She won’t die,” lightly answered John. “I’ll send her a ten-pound note to make amends. Make you haste, Jan, if I am to wait.”
Jan sped off to Hook’s. He found the girl very ill, but not so much so as Cheese had intimated. Some unseemly quarrel had taken place in the cottage, which had agitated her.
“There’s no danger,” mentally soliloquised Jan, “but it has thrown her back a good two days.”
He found John Massingbird—restless John!—restless as ever!—pacing before the trees with hasty strides, and bursting into explosions of laughter.
“Some woman was coming along, from one of the cottages by Broom’s, I expect, and I appeared to her, and sent her on, howling,” he explained to Jan. “I think it was Mother Sykes. The sport this ghost affair has been!”
He sat down on a bench, held his sides, and let his laughter have vent. Laughter is contagious, and Jan laughed with him, but in a quieter way.
“Whatever put it into your head to personate Frederick?” inquired Jan. “Was it done to frighten the people?”
“Not at first,” answered John Massingbird.
“Because, if to frighten had been your motive, you need only have appeared in your own person,” continued Jan. “You were thought to be dead, you know, as much as Fred was. Fred is dead, I suppose?”
“Fred is dead, poor fellow, safe enough. I was supposed to be dead, but I came to life, again.”
“Did you catch Fred’s star when he died?” asked Jan, pointing to the cheek.
“No,” replied John Massingbird, with another burst of laughter, “I get that up with Indian-ink.”
Bit by bit, Jan came into possession of the details. At least, of as much of them as John Massingbird deemed it expedient to furnish. It appeared that his being attacked and robbed and left for dead, when travelling down to Melbourne, was perfectly correct. Luke Roy quitted him, believing he was dead. Luke would not have quitted him so hastily, but that he wished to be on the track of the thieves, and he hastened to Melbourne. After Luke’s departure, John Massingbird, as he phrased it, came to life again. He revived from the suspended animation, or swoon, which, prolonged over some hours, had been mistaken for death. The bullet was extracted from his side, and he progressed pretty rapidly towards recovery.
Luke meanwhile had reached Melbourne; and had come in contact—amongst other people—with a family of the name of Eyre. Luke—if you have not forgotten—had said to Mr. Eyre that he had obtained a clue to the men who robbed his master; such, at least, was the information given by that gentleman to Sibylla Massingbird, on her subsequent sojourn at his house. He, Mr. Eyre, had said that Luke had promised to return the following day and inform him how he sped in the search, but that Luke never did return; that he had never seen him afterwards. All true. Luke found the clue, he thought he had gained, to be no clue at all; but he heard news that pleased him better than fifty clues would have done—that his master, Mr. Massingbird, was alive. One who had travelled down to Melbourne from where John was lying, gave him the information. Without waiting to break bread or draw water, without giving another thought to Mr. Eyre, Luke started off there and then, to retrace his steps to John Massingbird. John was nearly well then, and they returned at once to the diggings. In his careless way, he said the loss must be given up for a bad job; they should never find the fellows, and the best plan was to pick up more gold to replace that gone. Luke said he had written home to announce his death. John went into a fit of laughter, forbade Luke to contradict it, and anticipated the fun he should have in surprising them, when he went home on the accumulation of his fortune. Thus he stopped at the diggings, remaining in complete ignorance of the changes which had taken place; the voyage of Frederick and his wife to Melbourne, the death of Mr. Verner, the subsequent death of Frederick; and above all—for that would have told most on John—of the strange will left by Mr. Verner, which had constituted him the inheritor of Verner’s Pride.
But fortune did not come in the rapid manner fondly expected by John. The nuggets seemed shy. He obtained enough to rub along with, as he phrased it, and that was all. The life did not ill suit him. To a man like Lionel Verner, of innate refinement, just and conscientious, the life would have been intolerable, almost worse than death. John was not overburthened with any one of those qualities, and he rather liked the life than not. One thing was against him: he had no patience. Roving about from place to place, he was satisfied nowhere long. It was not only that he perpetually changed the spot, or bed, of work, but he changed from one settlement to another. This was the reason probably that Captain Cannonby had never met with him; it was more than probable that it was the cause of his non-success. Luke Roy was not so fond of roving. He found a place likely to answer his expectations, and he remained at it; so that the two parted early, and did not again meet afterwards.
Suddenly John Massingbird heard that he had been left heir to Verner’s Pride. He had gone down to Melbourne; and some new arrival from England—from the county in which Verner’s Pride was situated—mentioned this in his hearing. The stranger was telling the tale of the unaccountable will of Mr. Verner, of the death of John and Frederick Massingbird, and of the consequent accession of Lionel Verner; telling it as a curious bit of home gossip, unconscious that one of his listeners was the first-named heir—the veritable John Massingbird.
Too much given to act upon impulse, giving himself no time to ascertain or to inquire whether the story might be correct or not, John Massingbird took a berth in the first ship advertised for home. He possessed very little more money than would pay for his passage; he gave himself no concern how he was to get back to Australia, or how exist in England, should the news prove incorrect, but started away off-hand. Providing for the future had never been made a concern by John Massingbird.
He sailed, and he arrived safely. But, once in England, it was necessary to proceed rather cautiously; and John, careless and reckless as he was could not ignore the expediency of so acting. There were certain reasons why it would not be altogether prudent to show himself in the neighbourhood of Verner’s Pride, unless his pocket were weighty enough to satisfy sundry claims which would inevitably flock in upon him. Were he sure that he was the legitimate master of Verner’s Pride, he would have driven up in a coach-and-six, with flying flags and streamers to the horses’ heads, and so have announced his arrival in triumph. Not being sure, he preferred to feel his way, and this could not be done by arriving openly.
There was one place where he knew he could count upon being sheltered, while the way was “felt.” And this was Giles Roy’s. Roy would be true to him; would conceal him if need was; and help him off again, did Verner’s Pride, for him, prove a myth. This thought John Massingbird put in practice, arriving one dark night at Roy’s, and nearly startling Mrs. Roy to death. Whatever fanciful ghosts the woman may have seen before, she never doubted that she saw a real ghost now.
His first question, naturally, was about the will. Roy told him it was perfectly true that a will had been made in his favour; but the will had been superseded by a codicil. And he related the circumstance of that codicil’s mysterious loss. Was it found? John eagerly asked. Ah! there Roy could not answer him; he was at a nonplus; he was unable to say whether the codicil had been found, or not. A rumour had gone about Deerham, some time subsequently to the loss, that it had been found, but Roy had never come to the rights of it. John Massingbird stared as he heard him say this. Then, couldn’t he tell whether he was the heir or not? whether Lionel Verner held it by established right or by wrong? he asked. And Roy shook his head—he could not.
Under these uncertainties, Mr. John Massingbird did not see his way particularly clear. Either to stop, or to go. If he stopped, and showed himself, he might be unpleasantly assured, that the true heir of Verner’s Pride inhabited Verner’s Pride; if he went back to Australia, the no less mortifying fact might come out afterwards, that he was the heir to Verner’s Pride, and had run away from his own.
What was to be done? Roy suggested perhaps the best plan that could be thought of—that Mr. Massingbird should remain in his cottage in concealment while he, Roy, endeavoured to ascertain the truth regarding the codicil. And John Massingbird was fain to adopt it. He took up his abode in the upper bedroom, which had been Luke’s, and Mrs. Roy, locking her front door, carried his meals up to him by day, Roy setting himself to ferret out—as you may recollect—all he could learn about the codicil. The “all” was not much. Ordinary gossipers knew no more than Roy, whether the codicil had been found or not; and Roy tried to pump Matiss, by whom he got baffled—he even tried to pump Mr. Verner. He went up to Verner’s Pride, ostensibly to ask whether he might paper Luke’s old room at his own cost. In point of fact, the paper was in a dilapidated state, and he did wish to put it decent for John Massingbird; but he could have done it without speaking to Mr. Verner. It was a great point with Roy to find favour in the sight of Mr. Massingbird, his possible future master. Lionel partially saw through the man; he believed that he had some covert motive in seeking the interview with him, and that Roy was trying to pry into his affairs. But Roy found himself baffled also by Mr. Verner, as he had been by Matiss, in so far as that he could learn nothing certain of the existence or non-existence of the codicil.
Two days of the condemned confinement were sufficient to tire out John Massingbird. To a man of active, restless temperament, who had lived almost day and night under the open skies, the being shut up in a small, close room, was well-nigh unbearable. He could not stamp on its floor (there was no space to walk on it), lest any intrusive neighbour below, who might have popped in, unwanted, should say, Who have ye got up aloft? He could not open the window and put his head out, to catch a breath of fresh air, lest prying eyes might be cast upon him.
“I can’t stand this,” he said to Roy. “A week of it would kill me. I shall go out at night.”
Roy opposed the resolve so far as he dared—having an eye always to the not displeasing his future master. He represented to John Massingbird that he would inevitably be seen: and that he might just as well be seen by day as by night. John would not listen to reason. That very night, as soon as dark came on, he went out, and was seen. Seen by Robin Frost.
Robin Frost, whatever superstitions or fond feelings he may have cherished, regarding the hoped-for reappearance of Rachel’s spirit, was no believer in ghosts in a general point of view. In fact, that it was John Massingbird’s ghost, never once entered Robin’s mind. He came at once to the more sensible conclusion that some error had occurred with regard to his reported death, and that it was John Massingbird himself.
His deadly enemy. The only one, of all the human beings upon earth, with whom Robin was at issue. For he believed that it was John Massingbird who had worked the ill to Rachel. Robin, in his blind vengeance, took to lying in wait with a gun: and Roy became cognisant of this.
“You must not go out again, sir,” he said to John Massingbird: “he may shoot you dead.”
Curious, perhaps, to say, John Massingbird had himself come to the same conclusion—that he must not go out again. He had very narrowly escaped meeting one, who would as surely have known him, in the full moonlight, as did Robin Frost: one, whom it would have been nearly as inconvenient to meet, as it was Robin. And yet—stop in perpetual confinement by day and by night, he could not: he persisted that he should be dead. Almost better go back, unsatisfied, to Australia.
A bright idea occurred to John Massingbird. He would personate his brother. Frederick, so far as he knew, had neither creditors nor enemies round Deerham; and the likeness between them was so great, both in face and form, that there would be little difficulty in it. When they were at home together, John had been the stouter of the two: but his wanderings had fined him down, and his figure now looked exactly as Frederick’s did formerly. He shaved off his whiskers—Frederick had never worn any; or, for the matter of that, had had any to wear—and painted an imitation star on his cheek with Indian ink. His hair, too, had grown long on the voyage, and had not yet been cut: just as Frederick used to wear his. John had favoured a short crop of hair; Frederick, long.
These little toilette mysteries accomplished, so exactly did he look like his brother Frederick, that Roy started when he saw him; and Mrs. Roy went into a prolonged scream that might have been heard at the brick-fields. John attired himself in a long, loose dark coat, which had seen service at the Diggings, and sallied out: the coat which had been mistaken for a riding habit.
He enjoyed himself to his heart’s content, receiving more fun than he had bargained for. It had not occurred to him to personate Frederick’s ghost: he had only thought of personating Frederick himself: but, to his unbounded satisfaction, he found the former climax arrived at. He met old Matthew Frost; he frightened Dan Duff into fits; he frightened Master Cheese; he startled the parson; he solaced himself by taking up his station under the yew-tree on the lawn at Verner’s Pride, to contemplate that desirable structure, which perhaps was his, and the gaiety going on in it. He had distinctly seen Lionel Verner leave the lighted rooms and approach him, upon which he retreated. Afterwards, it was rather a favourite night-pastime of his, the standing under the yew-tree at Verner’s Pride. He was there again the night of the storm.
All this, the terrifying people into the belief that he was Frederick’s veritable ghost, had been choicest sport to John Massingbird. The trick might not have availed with Robin Frost, but they had found a different method of silencing him. Of an easy, good-tempered nature, the thought of any real damage from consequences had been completely passed over by John. If Dan Duff did go into fits, he’d recover from them; if Alice Hook was startled into something worse, she was not dead. It was all sport to free-and-easy John: and, but for circumstances, there’s no knowing how long he might have carried this game on. These circumstances touched upon a point that influences us all, more or less: pecuniary consideration. John was minus funds, and it was necessary that something should be done: he could not continue to live long upon Roy.
It was Roy himself who at length hit upon the plan that brought forth the certainty about the codicil. Roy found rumours were gaining ground abroad that it was not Frederick Massingbird’s ghost, but Frederick himself; and he knew that the explanation must soon come. He determined to waylay Tynn, and make an apparent confidant of him: by these means he should, in all probability, come at the desired information. Roy did so: and found that there was no codicil. He carried his news to John Massingbird, advising that gentleman to go at once and put in his claim to Verner’s Pride. John, elated with the news, protested he’d have one more night’s fun first.
Such were the facts. John Massingbird told them to Jan, suppressing any little bit that he chose, here and there. The doubt about the codicil, for instance, and its moving motive in the affair, he did not mention.
“It has been the best fun I ever had in my life,” he remarked. “I never shall forget the parson’s amazed stare, the first time I passed him. Or old Tynn’s, either, last night. Jan, you should have heard Dan Duff howl!”
“I have,” said Jan. “I have had the pleasure of attending him. My only wonder is, that he did not put himself into the pool, in his fright: as Rachel Frost did, time back.”
John Massingbird caught the words up hastily.
“How do you know that Rachel put herself in? She may have been put in.”
“For all I know she may. Taking circumstances into consideration, however, I should say it was the other way.”
“I say, Jan,” interrupted John Massingbird, with another explosion, “didn’t your Achates, Cheese, arrive at home in a mortal fright one night?”
“I shall never forget him; never. He was marching up, all bravely, till he saw my face. Didn’t he turn tail! There has been one person above all others, Jan, that I have wanted to meet, and have not. Your brother Lionel.”
“He’d have pinned you,” said Jan.
“Not he. You would not have done it to-night, but that I let you do it. No chance of any body catching me, unless I chose. I was on the look out for all I met, for all to whom I chose to show myself: they met me unawares. Unprepared for the encounter, while they were recovering their astonishment, I was beyond reach. Last night I had been watching over the gate ever so long, when I darted out in front of Tynn, to astonish him. Jan”—lowering his voice—“has it put Sibylla in a fright?”
“I think it has put Lionel in a worse,” responded Jan.
“For fear of losing her?” laughed John Massingbird. “Wouldn’t it have been a charming prospect for some husbands, who are tired of their wives! Is Lionel tired of his?”
“Can’t say,” replied Jan. “There’s no appearance of it.”
“I should be, if Sibylla had been my wife for two years,” candidly avowed John Massingbird. “Sibylla and I never hit it off well as cousins: I’d not own her as wife, if she were dowered with all the gold mines in Australia. What Fred saw in her was always a puzzle to me. I knew what was going on between them, though nobody else did. But, Jan, I’ll tell you what astonished me more than everything else when I learnt it—that Lionel should have married her subsequently. I never could have imagined Lionel Verner taking up with another man’s wife.”
“She was his widow,” cried literal Jan.
“All the same. ’Twas another man’s leavings. And there’s something about Lionel Verner, with his sensitive refinement, that does not seem to accord with the notion. Is she healthy?”
“Who? Sibylla? I don’t fancy she has much of a constitution.”
“No, that she has not! There are no children, I hear. Jan, though, you need not have pinched so hard when you pounced upon me,” he continued, rubbing his arm. “I was not going to run away.”
“How did I know that?” said Jan.
“It’s my last night of fun, and when I saw you I said to myself, ‘I’ll be caught.’ How are old Deb and Amilly?”
“Much as usual. Deb’s in a fever just now. She has heard that Fred Massingbird’s back, and thinks Sibylla ought to leave Lionel on the strength of it.”
John laughed again.
“It must have put others in a fever, I know, besides poor old Deb. Jan, I can’t stop talking to you all night, I should get no more fun. I wish I could appear to all Deerham collectively, and send it into fits after Dan Duff! To-morrow, as soon as I genteely can after breakfast, I go up to Verner’s Pride and show myself. One can’t go at six in the morning.”
He turned off in the direction of Clay Lane as he spoke, and Jan made the best of his way to Verner’s Pride. From some cause or other they had dined unusually late there, and Lionel Verner was with his guests, making merry with the best heart he had. Now, he would rely upon the information given by Captain Cannonby; the next moment, he was feeling that the combined testimony of so many eye-witnesses must be believed, and that it could be no other than Frederick Massingbird. Tynn had been with the man face to face only the previous night; Roy had distinctly asserted that he was back, in life, from Australia. Whatever his anxiety may have been, his wife seemed at rest. Full of smiles and gaiety, she sat opposite to him, glittering gems in her golden hair, shining forth from her costly robes.
“Not out from dinner!” cried Jan, in his astonishment, when Tynn denied him to Lionel. “Why, it’s my supper-time! I must see him, whether he’s at dinner or not. Go and say so, Tynn. Something important, tell him.”
The message brought Lionel out. Thankful, probably, to get out. The playing the host with a mind ill at ease, how it jars upon the troubled and fainting spirit! Jan, disdaining the invitation to the drawing-room, had hoisted himself on the top of an old carved ebony cabinet that stood in the hall, containing curiosities, and sat there with his legs dangling. He jumped off when Lionel appeared, wound his arm within his, and drew him out on the terrace.
“I have come to the bottom of it, Lionel,” said he, without further circumlocution. “I dropped upon the ghost just now and pinned him. It is not Fred Massingbird.”
Lionel paused, and then drew a deep breath; like one who has been relieved from some great care.
“Cannonby said it was not!” he exclaimed. “Cannonby is here, Jan, and he assures me Frederick Massingbird is dead and buried. Who is it then? Have you found it out?”
“I pinned him, I say,” said Jan. “I was going down to Hook’s, and he crossed my path. He—”
“Is it somebody who has been doing it for a trick?” interrupted Lionel.
“Well—yes—in one sense. It is not Fred Massingbird, Lionel: he is dead, safe enough; but it is somebody from a distance; one who will cause you little less trouble. Not any less, in fact, putting Sibylla out of the question.”
Lionel stopped in his walk—they were pacing the terrace—and looked at Jan with some surprise; a smile, in his new security, lighting his face.
“There is nobody in the world, Jan, dead or alive, who could bring trouble to me, save Frederick Massingbird. Anybody else may come, so long as he does not.”
“Ah! You are thinking only of Sibylla.”
“Of whom else should I think?”
“Yourself,” replied Jan.
Lionel laughed in his gladness. How thankful he was for his wife’s sake One alone knew.
“I am nobody, Jan: any trouble coming to me I can battle with.”
“Well, Lionel, the returned man is John Massingbird.”
Of all the birds in the air and the fishes in the sea—as the children say—he was the very last to whom Lionel Verner had cast a thought. That it was John who had returned, had not entered his imagination. He had never cast a doubt to the fact of his death. Bringing the name out slowly, he stared at Jan in very astonishment.
“Well,” said he, presently, “John is not Frederick.”
“No,” assented Jan. “He can put in no claim to your wife; but he can to Verner’s Pride.”
The words caused Lionel’s heart to go on with a bound. A great evil for him: there was no doubt of it; but still slight, compared to the one he had dreaded for Sibylla.
“There is no mistake, I suppose, Jan?”
“There’s no mistake,” replied Jan. “I have been talking to him this half hour. He is hiding at Roy’s.”
“Why should he be in hiding at all?” inquired Lionel.
“He had two or three motives, he said:” and Jan proceeded to give Lionel a summary of what he had heard. “He was not very explicit to me,” concluded Jan. “Perhaps he’ll be more so to you. He says he is coming to Verner’s Pride to-morrow morning at the earliest genteel hour after breakfast.”
“And what does he say to the fright he has caused?” resumed Lionel.
“Does nothing but laugh over it. Says it’s the primest fun he ever had in his life. He has come back very poor, Lionel.”
“Poor? Then, were Verner’s Pride and its revenues not his, I could have understood why he should not like to show himself openly. Well! well! compared to what I feared, it is a mercy. Sibylla is free; and I—I must make the best of it. He will be a more generous master of Verner’s Pride—as I believe—than Frederick would ever have been.”
“Yes,” nodded Jan. “In spite of his faults. And John Massingbird used to have plenty.”
“I don’t know who amongst us is without them, Jan. Unless—upon my word, old fellow, I mean it!—unless it is you.”
Jan opened his great eyes with a wondering stare. It never occurred to humble-minded Jan that there was anything in him approaching to goodness. He supposed Lionel had spoken in joke.
“What’s that?” cried he.
Jan alluded to a sudden burst of laughter, to a sound of many voices, to fair forms that were flitting before the windows. The ladies had gone into the drawing-room. “What a relief it will be for Sibylla!” involuntarily uttered Lionel.
“She’ll make a face at losing Verner’s Pride,” was the less poetical remark of Jan.
“Will he turn us out at once, Jan?”
“He said nothing to me on that score, nor I to him,” was the answer of Jan. “Look here, Lionel. Old West’s a screw, between ourselves; but what I do earn is my own: so don’t get breaking your rest, thinking you’ll not have a pound or two to turn to. If John Massingbird does turn you out, I can manage things for you, if you don’t mind living quietly.”
Honest Jan! His notions of “living quietly” would have comprised a couple of modest rooms, cotton umbrellas like his own, and a mutton chop a day. And Jan would have gone without the chop himself, to give it to Lionel. To Sibylla, also. Not that he had any great love for that lady, in the abstract: but, for Jan to eat chops, while anybody, no matter how remotely connected with him, wanted them, would have been completely out of Jan’s nature.
A lump was rising in Lionel’s throat. He loved Jan, and knew his worth, if nobody else did. While he was swallowing it down, Jan went on, quite eagerly.
“Something else might be thought of, Lionel. I don’t see why you and Sibylla should not come to old West’s. The house is large enough: and Deb and Amilly couldn’t object to it for their sister. In point of right, half the house is mine: West said so when I became his partner. He asked if I’d not like to marry, and said there was the half of the house; but I told him I’d rather be excused. I might get a wife, you know, Lionel, who’d be for grumbling at me all day, like my mother does. Now, if you and Sibylla would come there, the matter, as to your future, would be at rest. I’d divide what I get between you and Miss Deb. Half to her for the extra cost you’d be to the housekeeping; the other half for pocket-money for you and Sibylla. I think you might make it do, Lionel: my share is quite two hundred a year. My own share, I mean: besides what I hand over to Miss Deb, and transmit to the doctor. Could you manage with it?”
“Jan!” said Lionel, from between his quivering lips. “Dear Jan, there’s—”
They were interrupted. Bounding out at the drawing-room window, the very window at which Lucy Tempest had sat that night and watched the yew tree, came Sibylla, fretfulness in the lines of her countenance, complaint in the tones of her voice.
“Mr. Jan Verner, I’d like to know what right you have to send for Lionel out when he is at dinner? If he is your brother, you have no business to forget yourself like that. He can’t help your being his brother, I suppose; but you ought to know better than to presume upon it.”
“Be quiet, Lionel. I shall tell him of it. Never was such a thing heard of, as for a gentleman to be called out for nothing, from his table’s head! You do it again, Jan, and I shall order Tynn to shut the doors to you of Verner’s Pride.”
Jan received the lecture with the utmost equanimity, the most imperturbable good nature. Lionel wound his arms about his wife, gravely and gently: whatever may have been the pain caused by her words, he suppressed it.
“Jan came here to tell me news that quite justified his sending for me, wherever I might be, or however occupied, Sibylla. He has succeeded in solving to-night the mystery which has hung over us; he has discovered who it is that we have been taking for Frederick Massingbird.”
“It is not Frederick Massingbird,” cried Sibylla, speaking sharply. “Captain Cannonby says that it cannot be.”
“No, it is not Frederick Massingbird—God be thanked!” said Lionel. “With that knowledge we can afford to hear who it is bravely; can we not, Sibylla?”
“But why don’t you tell me who it is?” she retorted, in an impatient, fretful tone, not having the discernment to see that he wished to prepare her for what was coming. “Can’t you speak, Jan, if he won’t? People have no right to come dressed up in other’s clothes and faces to frighten us to death. He ought to be transported! Who is it?”
“You’ll be startled, Sibylla. It is one whom we have believed to be dead; though it is not Frederick Massingbird.”
“I wish you’d tell—beating about the bush like that! You need not stare so, Jan. I don’t believe you know.”
“It is your cousin, Sibylla; John Massingbird.”
A moment’s pause. And then, clutching at the hand of Lionel—
“Who?” she shrieked.
“Hush, my dear. It is John Massingbird.”
“Not dead! Did he not die?”
“No. He recovered, when left, as was supposed, for dead. He is coming here to-morrow morning, Jan says.”
Sibylla let fall her hands. She staggered back to a pillar and leaned against it, her upturned face white in the starlight.
“Is—is—is Verner’s Pride yours or his?” she gasped, in a low tone.
“It is his.”
“His! Neither yours nor mine?”
“It is only his, Sibylla.”
She raised her hands again; she began fighting with the air, as if she would beat off an imaginary John Massingbird. Another minute, and her laughter and her cries came forth together, shriek upon shriek: she was in strong hysterics. Lionel supported her, while Jan ran for water; and the gay company came flocking out of the lighted rooms to see.
CHAPTER XLVIII. NO HOME.
People talk of a nine days’ wonder. But no nine days’ wonder has ever been heard or known, equal to that which fell on Deerham, which went booming to the very extremity of the county’s boundaries. Lionel Verner, the legitimate heir—it may so be said—the possessor of Verner’s Pride, was turned out of it to make room for an alien, resuscitated from the supposed dead.
Sailors tell us that the rats desert a sinking ship. Pseudo friends desert a falling house. You may revel in these friends in prosperity, but when adversity sets in, how they fall away! On the very day that John Massingbird arrived at Verner’s Pride, and it became known that not he, but Mr. and Mrs. Verner must leave it, the gay company, gathered there, dispersed. Dispersed with polite phrases, meaning nothing. They were so very sorry for the calamity, for Mr. and Mrs. Verner; if they could do anything to serve them they had only to be commanded. And then they left; never perhaps to meet again, even as acquaintances. It may be asked, what could they do? They could not invite them to a permanent home; saddle themselves with a charge of that sort; neither would such an invitation be accepted. It did not appear they could do anything; but their combined flight from the house, one after the other, did strike with a chill of mortification upon the nerves of Lionel Verner and his wife.
His wife! Ah, poor Lionel had enough upon his hands, looking on one side and another. She was the heaviest weight. Lionel had thanked God in his true heart that they had been spared the return of Frederick Massingbird; but there was little doubt that the return of Frederick would have been regarded by her as a light calamity, in comparison with this. She made no secret of it. Ten times a day had Lionel to beat down his feelings, and compress his lips to stop the retort that would rise bubbling up within them. She would openly lament that it was not Frederick who had returned, in which case she might have remained at Verner’s Pride!
“You’ll not turn them out, Massingbird?” cried Jan, in his straightforward way, drawing the gentleman into the fruit-garden to a private conference. “I wouldn’t.”
John Massingbird laughed good-humouredly. He had been in the sunniest humour throughout; had made his first appearance at Verner’s Pride in bursts of laughter, heartily grasping the hands of Lionel, of Sibylla, and boasting of the “fun” he had had in playing the ghost. Captain Cannonby, the only one of the guests who remained, grew charmed with John, and stated his private opinion in the ear of Lionel Verner that he was worth a hundred such as Frederick.
“How can I help turning them out?” answered he. “I didn’t make the will—it was old Daddy Verner.”
“You need not act upon the will,” said Jan. “There was a codicil, you know, superseding it, though it can’t be found. Sibylla’s your cousin—it would be a cruel thing to turn her from her home.”
“Two masters never answered in a house yet,” nodded John. “I am not going to try it.”
“Let them stop in Verner’s Pride, and you go elsewhere,” suggested Jan.
John Massingbird laughed for five minutes.
“How uncommon young you are, Jan!” said he. “Has Lionel been putting you up to try this on?”
Jan swung himself on a tolerably strong branch of the mulberry-tree, regardless of any damage the ripe fruit might inflict on his nether garments.
“Knowing Lionel, you needn’t ask it, Massingbird. There’d be a difficulty in getting him to stop in Verner’s Pride now, but he might be coaxed to do it for the sake of his wife. She’ll have a fit of illness if she has to go out of it. Lionel is one to stand by his own to the last; while Verner’s Pride was his, he’d have fought to retain its possession, inch by inch; but let ever so paltry a quibble of the law take it from him, and he’d not lift up his finger to keep it. But, I say, I think he might be got to do it for Sibylla.”
“I’ll tell you a secret, Jan,” cried John Massingbird. “I’d not have Sibylla stop in Verner’s Pride if she paid me ten thousand a year for the favour. There! And as to resigning Verner’s Pride the minute I come into it, nobody but a child or Jan Verner could ever have started so absurd an idea. If anything makes me feel cross, it is the thought of my having been knocking about yonder, when I might have been living in clover here. I’d get up an Ever-perpetual philanthropic benefit-my-fellow-creature society, if I were you, Jan, and hold meetings at Exeter Hall!”
“Not in my line,” said Jan, swaying himself about on the bough.
“Isn’t it! I should say it was. Why don’t you invite Sibylla to your house, if you are so fond of her?”
“She won’t come,” said Jan.
“Perhaps you have asked her!”
“I was beginning to ask her, but she flew at me and ordered me to hold my tongue. No, I see it,” Jan added, in self-soliloquy, “she’ll never come there. I thought she might: and I got Miss Deb to think so. She’ll—she’ll—”
“She’ll what?” asked John Massingbird.
“She’ll be a thorn in Lionel’s side, I’m afraid.”
“Nothing more likely,” acquiesced easy John. “Roses and thorns go together. If gentlemen will marry the one, they must expect to get their share of the other.”
Jan jumped off his bough. His projects all appeared to be failing. The more he had dwelt upon his suddenly-thought-of scheme, that Dr. West’s house might afford an asylum for Lionel and his wife, the more he had become impressed with its desirability. Jan Verner, though the most unselfish, perhaps it may be said the most improvident of mortals, with regard to himself, had a considerable deal of forethought for the rest of the world. It had struck him, even before it struck Lionel, that, if turned out of Verner’s Pride, Lionel would want a home; want it in the broadest acceptation of the word. It would have been Jan’s delight to give him one. He, Jan, went home, told Miss Deb the news that it was John Massingbird who had returned, not Frederick, and imparted his views of future arrangements.
Miss Deb was dubious. For Mr. Verner of Verner’s Pride to become an inmate of their home, dependent on her housekeeping, looked a formidable affair. But Jan pointed out that, Verner’s Pride gone, it appeared to be a choice of cheap lodgings: their house would be an improvement upon that. And Miss Deb acquiesced: and grew to contemplate the addition to her family, in conjunction with the addition Jan proposed to add to her income, with great satisfaction.
That failed. Failed upon Jan’s first hint of it to Mrs. Verner. She—to use his own expression—flew out at him, at the bare thought: and Sibylla Verner could fly out in an unseemly manner when she choose.
Jan’s next venture had been with John Massingbird. That was failure the second.
“Where are they to go?” thought Jan.
It was a question that Lionel Verner may also have been asking in his inmost heart. As yet he could not look his situation fully in the face. Not from any want of moral courage, but because of the inextricable confusion that his affairs seemed to be in. And, let his moral courage be what it would, the aspect they bore might have caused a more hardy heart than Lionel’s to shrink. How much he owed he could not tell; nothing but debt stared him in the face. He had looked to the autumn rents of Verner’s Pride to extricate him from a portion of his difficulties; and now those rents would be received by John Massingbird. The furniture in the house, the plate, the linen, none of it was his: it had been left by the will with Verner’s Pride. The five hundred pounds, all that he had inherited by that will, had been received at the time—and was gone. One general sinking fund seemed to have swallowed up everything; that, and all else, leaving a string of debts a yard long in its place.
Reproaches now would be useless; whether self-reproach, or reproach to his wife. The latter, Lionel would never have given. And yet, when he looked back, and thought how free from debt he might have been, nothing but reproach, however vaguely directed, reproach of the past generally, seemed to fill his heart. To turn out in the world, a free man, though penniless, would have been widely different from turning out, plunged over head and ears in difficulties.
In what quarter did he not owe money? He could not say. He had not been very provident, and Sibylla had not been provident at all. But this much might be said for Lionel: that he had not wasted money on useless things, or self-indulgence. The improvements he had begun on the estate had been the chief drain, so far as he went; and the money they took had caused him to get backward with the general expenses. He had also been over liberal to his mother. Money was owing on all sides; for large things and for great: how much, Lionel did not yet know. He did not know—he was afraid to guess—what private debts might have been contracted by his wife. There had been times lately, when, in contemplating the embarrassment growing so hopelessly upon him, Lionel had felt inclined to wish that some climax would come and end it; but he had never dreamt of such a climax as this. A hot flush dyed his cheeks as he remembered there was nearly a twelvemonth’s wages owing to most of his servants; and he had not the means now of paying them.
“Stop on a bit if you like,” said John Massingbird, in a hearty tone; “stop a month, if you will. You are welcome. It will be only changing your place from master to guest.”
From master to guest! That same day John Massingbird assumed his own place, unasked, at the head of the dinner-table. Lionel went to the side with a flushed face. John Massingbird had never been remarkable for delicacy, but Lionel could not help thinking that he might have waited until he was gone, before assuming the full mastership. Captain Cannonby made the third at the dinner, and he, by John Massingbird’s request, took the foot of the table. It was not the being put out of his place that hurt Lionel, so much as the feeling of annoyance that John Massingbird could behave so unlike a gentleman. He felt ashamed for him. Dinner over, Lionel went up to his wife, who was keeping her room, partly from temper, partly from illness.
“Sibylla, I’ll not stop here another day,” he said. “I see that John Massingbird wants us gone. Now, what shall I do? Take lodgings?”
Sibylla looked up from the sofa, her eyes red with crying, her cheeks inflamed.
“Anybody but you, Lionel, would never allow him to turn you out. Why don’t you dispute the right with him? Turn him out, and defy him!”
He did not tell Sibylla that she was talking like a child. He only said that John Massingbird’s claim to Verner’s Pride was indisputable—that it had been his all along—and, in point of right, he himself had been the usurper.
“Then you mean,” she said, “to give him up quiet possession?”
“I have no other resource, Sibylla. To attempt any sort of resistance would be foolish as well as wrong.”
“I shan’t give it up. I shall stay here in spite of him. You may do as you like, but he is not going to get me out of my own home.”
“Sibylla, will you try and be rational for once? If ever a time called for it, it is the present. I ask you whether I shall seek after lodgings.”
“And I wonder that you are not ashamed to ask me,” retorted Sibylla, bursting into tears. “Lodgings, after Verner’s Pride! No. I’d rather die than go into lodgings. I daresay I shall die soon, with all this affliction.”
“I do not see what else there is for us but lodgings,” resumed Lionel, after a pause. “You will not hear of Jan’s proposition.”
“Go back to my old home!” she shrieked. “Like—as poor Fred used to say—bad money returned. No! that I never will. You are wrapt up in Jan: if he proposed to give me poison, you’d say Yes. I wish Fred had not died!”
“Will you be so good as tell me what you think ought to be done?” inquired Lionel.
“How can I think? Where’s the good of asking me? I think the least you can do in this wretchedness, is to take as much worry off me as you can, Lionel.”
“It is what I wish to do,” he gently said. “But I can see only one plan for us, Sibylla—lodgings. Here we cannot stay: it is out of the question. To take a house is equally so. We have no furniture—no money, in short, to set up a house, or to keep it on. Jan’s plan, until I can turn myself round and see what’s to be done, would be the best. You would be going to your own sisters, who would take care of you, should I find it necessary to be away.”
“Where are you going?” she quickly asked.
“I must go somewhere and do something. I cannot lead an idle life, living upon other people’s charity, or let you live upon it. I must find some way of earning a livelihood: in London, perhaps. While I am looking out, you would be with your sisters.”
“Then Lionel, hear me!” she cried, her throat working, her blue eyes flashing, with a strange light. “I will never go home to my sisters! I will never, so long as I live, enter that house again, to reside! You are no better than—than—a bear—to wish me to do it.”
What was he to do? She was his wife, and he must provide for her: but she would go neither into lodgings, nor to the proposed home. Lionel set his wits to work.
“I wonder—whether—my mother—would invite us there, for a short while?” The words were spoken slowly; reluctantly: as if there were an undercurrent of strong doubt in his mind. “Would you go to Deerham Court for a time, Sibylla, if Lady Verner were agreeable?”
“Yes,” said Sibylla, after a minute’s consideration. “I’d go there.”
Deeming it well that something should be decided, Lionel went down stairs, caught up his hat, and proceeded to Deerham Court. He did not say a word about his wife’s caprice, that two plans, proposed for her, had been rejected. He simply asked his mother whether she would temporarily receive him and his wife, until he could look round and decide on the future.
To his great surprise, Lady Verner answered that she would; and answered readily. Lionel, knowing the light in which she regarded his wife, had anticipated he knew not what of objection, if not of positive refusal.
“I wish you to come here, Lionel: I intended to send for you and tell you so,” was the reply of Lady Verner. “You have no home to turn to, and I could not have it said that my son in his strait was at fault for one. I never thought to receive your wife inside my doors, but for your sake I will do so. No servants, you understand, Lionel.”
“Certainly not,” he answered. “I cannot afford servants now as a matter of luxury.”
“I can neither afford them for you, nor is there room in my house to accommodate them. This applies to that French maid of yours,” Lady Verner pointedly added. “I do not like the woman: nothing would induce me to admit her here, even were circumstances convenient. Any attendance that your wife may require, she shall have.”
Lionel smiled, a sad smile. “Be easy, mother. The time for my wife to keep a French maid has gone by. I thank you very sincerely.”
And so Lionel Verner was once more to be turned from Verner’s Pride, to take up his abode with his wife in his mother’s home. When were his wanderings to be at rest?