Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Verner's Pride - Part 28
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER LV. RECOLLECTIONS OF A NIGHT GONE BY.
As the spring advanced, sickness began to prevail in Deerham. The previous autumn, the season when the enemy chiefly loved to show itself, had been comparatively free, but he appeared to be about taking his revenge now. In every third house people were down with ague and fever. Men who ought to be strong for their daily toil, women whose services were wanted for their households and their families, children whose young frames were unfitted to battle with it, were indiscriminately attacked. It was capricious as a summer’s wind. In some dwellings it would be the strongest and bravest signalled out; in some the weakest and most delicate. Jan was worked off his legs. Those necessary appendages to active Jan generally were exercised pretty well; but Jan could not remember the time when they had been worked as they were now. Jan grew cross. Not at the amount of work: it may be questioned whether Jan did not rather prefer that, than the contrary; but at the prevailing state of things. “It’s a sin and a shame that precautions are not taken against this periodical sickness,” said Jan, speaking out more forcibly than was his wont. “If the place were drained and the dwellings improved, the ague would run away to more congenial quarters. I’d not own Verner’s Pride, unless I could show myself fit to be its owner.”
The shaft may have been levelled at John Massingbird, but Lionel Verner took it to himself. How full of self-reproach he was, he alone knew. He had had the power in his own hands to make these improvements, and in some manner or other he had let the time slip by: now, the power was wrested from him. It is ever so. Golden opportunities come into our hands, and we look at them complacently, and—do not use them. Bitter regrets, sometimes remorse, take their places when they have flitted away for ever; but neither the regret nor the remorse can recall the opportunity lost.
Lionel pressed the necessity upon John Massingbird. It was all he could do now. John received it with complacent good-humour, and laughed at Lionel for making the request. But that was all.
“Set about draining Clay Lane, and build up new tenements in place of the old?” cried he. “What next, Lionel?”
“Look at the sickness the present state of things brings,” returned Lionel. “It is what ought to have been altered years ago.”
“Ah!” said John. “Why didn’t you alter it, then, when you had Verner’s Pride?”
“You may well ask! It was my first thought when I came into the estate. I would set about that; I would set about other improvements. Some I did carry out, as you know; but these, the most needful, I left in abeyance. It lies on my conscience now.”
They were in the study. Lionel was at the desk, some papers before him; John Massingbird had lounged in for a chat—as he was fond of doing, to the interruption of Lionel. He was leaning against the door-post; his attire not precisely such that a gentleman might choose who wished to send his photograph to make a morning call. His pantaloons were hitched up by a belt—braces, John said, were not fashionable at the Diggings, and he had learned the comfort of doing without them; a loose sort of round drab coat without tails; no waistcoat; a round brown hat, much bent, and a pair of slippers. Such was John Massingbird’s favourite costume, and he might be seen in it at all hours of the day. When he wanted to go abroad, his toilette was made, as the French say, by the exchanging of the slippers for boots, and the taking in his hand a club stick. John’s whiskers were growing again, and promised to be as fine a pair as he had worn before going out to Australia: and now he was letting his beard grow, but it looked very grim and stubbly. Truth to say, a stranger passing through the village and casting his eyes on Mr. John Massingbird, would not have taken him to be the master of that fine place, Verner’s Pride. Just now he had a clay pipe in his mouth, its stem little more than an inch long.
“Do you mean to assert that you’d set about these improvements, as you call them, were you to come again into Verner’s Pride?” asked he of Lionel.
“I believe I should. I would say unhesitatingly that I should, save for past experience. Before my uncle died, I knew how necessary it was that they should be made, and I as much believed that I should set about them the first thing when I came into the estate, as that I believe I am now talking to you. But you see I did not begin them. It has taught me to be chary of making assertions beforehand.”
“I suppose you think you’d do it.”
“If I know anything of my own resolution I should do it. Were Verner’s Pride to lapse to me to-morrow, I believe I should set about it the next day. But,” Lionel added, after a short pause, “there’s no probability of its lapsing to me. Therefore I want you to set about it in my place.”
“I can’t afford it,” replied John Massingbird.
“Nonsense! I wish I could afford things a quarter as well as you.”
“I tell you I can’t,” reiterated John, taking his pipe from his mouth to make a spittoon of the carpet, another convenience he had learnt at the Diggings. “I’m sure I don’t know how on earth my money goes; I never did know all my life how money went: but, go it does. When Fred and I were little chaps, some benevolent old soul tipped us half-a-crown apiece. Mine was gone by middle-day, and I could not account for more than ninepence of it: never could till this day. Fred at the end of a twelvemonth’s time had got his half-crown still snug in his pocket. Had Fred come into Verner’s Pride, he’d have lived in style on a thousand of his income yearly, and put by the rest.”
He never would, Sibylla being his wife, thought Lionel. But he did not say it to John Massingbird.
“An estate like this, brings its duties with it, John,” said he. “Remember those poor people down with sickness.”
“Bother duty,” returned John. “Look here, Lionel; you waste your breath and your words. I have not got the money to spend upon it; how do you know, old fellow, what my private expenses may be? And if I had the money, I should not do it,” he continued. “The present state of the property was deemed good enough by Mr. Verner; it was so deemed (if we may judge by facts) by Mr. Lionel Verner: and it is deemed good enough by John Massingbird. It is not he who’s going to have the cost thrown upon him. So let it drop.”
There was no resource but to let it drop; for, that he was in full earnest, Lionel saw. John continued.
“You can save up the alterations for yourself, to be commenced when you come into the property. A nice bonne bouche of outlay for you to contemplate.”
“I don’t look to come into it,” replied Lionel.
“The probabilities are that you will come into it,” returned John Massingbird, more seriously than he often spoke. “Barring getting shot, or run over by a railway train, you’ll make old bones, you will. You have never played with your constitution; I have, in more ways than one: and in bare years I have considerably the advantage of you. Psha! when I am a skeleton in my coffin, you’ll still be a young man. You can make your cherished alterations then.”
“You may well say in more ways than one,” returned Lionel, half joking, half serious. “There’s smoking amidst the catalogue. How many pipes do you smoke in a day? Fifty?”
“Why didn’t you say day and night? Tynn lives in perpetual torment lest my bed should ignite some night, and burn up him, as well as Verner’s Pride. I go to sleep sometimes with my pipe in my mouth as we do at the Diggings. Now and then I feel half inclined to make a rush back there. It suited me better than this.”
Lionel bent over some papers that were before him,—a hint that he had business to do. Mr. Massingbird did not take it. He began filling his pipe again, scattering the tobacco on the ground wholesale in the process, talking at the same time.
“I say, Lionel, why did old Verner leave the place away from you? Have you ever wondered?”
Lionel glanced up at him in surprise.
“Have I ever ceased wondering, you might have said. I don’t know why he did.”
“Did he never give you a reason—or an explanation?”
“Nothing of the sort. Except—yes, except a trifle. Some time after his death, Mrs. Tynn discovered a formidable-looking packet in one of his drawers; sealed, and directed to me. She thought it was the missing codicil; so did I, until I opened it. It proved to contain nothing but a glove; one of my old gloves, and a few lines from my uncle. They were to the effect that when I received the glove I should know why he disinherited me.”
“And did you know?” asked John Massingbird, applying a light to his pipe.
“Not in the least. It left the affair more obscure, if possible, than it had been before. I suppose I never shall know now.”
“Never’s a long day,” cried John Massingbird. “But you told me about this glove affair before.”
“Did I? Oh, I remember. When you first returned. That is all the explanation I have ever had.”
“It was not much,” said John. “Dickens take this pipe! It won’t draw. Where’s my knife?”
Not finding his knife about him, he went off to look for it, dragging his slippers along the hall in his usual lazy fashion. Lionel, glad of the respite, applied himself to his work.
One was dying in Deerham, but not of ague: and that was old Matthew Frost. Matthew was dying of old age, to which we must all succumb, if we live long enough.
April was in, and the fever and ague were getting better, when news was brought to Lionel one morning that old Matthew was not expected to last through the day. Jan called in at Deerham Court and told him so. Lionel had been starting to Verner’s Pride; but he changed his course towards Clay Lane.
“Jan,” said he, as he was turning away, “I wish you’d go up and see Sibylla. I am sure she is very ill.”
“I’ll go if you like,” said Jan. “But there’s no use in it. She won’t listen to a word I say, or attend to a single direction that I give. Hayes told me, when he came over last week, that it was the same with him. She persists to him, as she does to me, that she has no need of medicine or care; that she is quite well.”
“I am aware of it,” replied Lionel. “But I feel sure she is very ill.”
“I know she is,” said Jan. “She’s worse than folks think for. Perhaps you amongst them, Lionel. I’ll go up to her.”
He turned into the house as he spoke, and Lionel went on to Clay Lane.
Old Matthew was lying on his bed, very peaceful. Peaceful as to his inward and his outward state. Though exceedingly weak, gradually sinking, he retained both speech and intellect: he was passing away without pain, and with his faculties about him. What a happy death-bed, when all is peace within! His dim eyes lighted up with pleasure when he saw Mr. Verner.
“Have you come to see the last of me, sir?” he asked, as Lionel took his hand.
“Not quite the last yet, I hope, Matthew.”
“Don’t hope it, sir; nor wish it, neither,” returned the old man, lifting his hand with a deprecatory movement. “I’m on the threshold of a better world, sir, and I’d not turn back to this, if God was to give me the choice of it. I’m agoing to my rest, sir. Like as my bed has waited for me, and been welcome to me, after a hard day’s toil, so is my rest now at hand after my life’s toil. It is as surely waiting for me as ever was my bed; and I am longing to get to it.”
Lionel looked down at the calm, serene face, fair and smooth yet. The skin was drawn tight over it, especially over the well-formed nose, and the white locks fell on the pillow behind. It may be wrong to say there was a holy expression pervading the face; but it certainly gave that impression to Lionel Verner.
“I wish all the world—when their time comes—could die as you are dying, Matthew!” he exclaimed, in the impulse of his heart.
“Sir, all might. If they’d only live for it. It’s many a year ago now, Mr. Lionel, that I learnt to make a friend of God: He has stood me in good need. And those that do learn to make a friend of Him, sir, don’t fear to go to Him.”
Lionel drew forward a chair and sat down in it. The old man continued.
“Things seem to have been smoothed for me in a wonderful manner, sir. My great trouble, of late years, has been Robin. I feared how it might be with him when I went away and left him here alone: for you know the queer way he has been in, sir, since that great misfortune; and I have been a bit of a check on him, keeping him, as may be said, within bounds. Well, that trouble is done away with for me, sir; Robin he has got his mind at rest, and he won’t break out again. In a short while I am in hopes he’ll be quite what he used to be.”
“Matthew, it was my firm intention to continue your annuity to Robin,” spoke Lionel. “I am sorry the power to do so has been taken from me. You know that it will not rest with me now, but with Mr. Massingbird. I fear he is not likely to continue it.”
“Don’t regret it, sir. Robin, I say, is growing to be an industrious man again, and he can get a living well. If he had stopped a half-dazed do-nothing, he might have wanted that, or some other help; but it isn’t so. His trouble’s at rest, and his old energies are coming back to him. It seems to have left my mind at leisure, sir; and I can go away, praying for the souls of my poor daughter and of Frederick Massingbird.”
The name—his—aroused the attention of Lionel: more perhaps than he would have cared to confess. But his voice and manner retained their quiet calmness.
“What did you say, Matthew?”
“It was him, sir; Mr. Frederick Massingbird. It was nobody else.”
Down deep in Lionel Verner’s heart there had lain a conviction, almost ever since that fatal night, that the man had been no other than the one now spoken of, the younger Massingbird. Why the impression should have come to him he could not have told at the time: something perhaps in Frederick’s manner had given rise to it. On the night before John Massingbird’s departure for Australia, after the long interview he had held with Mr. Verner in the study, which was broken in upon by Lionel on the part of Robin Frost, the three young men—the Massingbirds and Lionel—had subsequently remained together, discussing the tragedy. In that interview, it was that a sudden doubt of Frederick Massingbird entered the mind of Lionel. It was impossible for him to tell why: he only knew that the impression, nay, it were more correct to say the conviction, seized hold upon him, never to be eradicated. He surmised not how far his guilt might have extended; but that he was the guilty one, he fully believed. It was not his business to proclaim this; had it been a certainty, instead of a fancy, Lionel would not have made it his business: but when Frederick Massingbird was on the point of marrying Sibylla, then Lionel partially broke through his reserve, and asked him whether he had nothing on his conscience that ought to prevent his making her his wife. Frederick answered freely and frankly to all appearance, and for the moment Lionel’s doubts were dissipated: only, however, to return afterwards with increased force. Consequently he was not surprised to hear this said, though surprised at Matthew Frost’s knowing it.
“How did you hear it, Matthew?” he asked.
“Robin got at it, sir. Poor Robin, he was altogether on the wrong scent for a long while, thinking it was Mr. John; but it’s set right now, and Robin, he’s at ease. May Heaven have mercy upon Frederick Massingbird!”
Successful rival though he had proved to him, guilty man that he had been, Lionel heartily echoed the prayer. He asked no more questions of the old man upon the subject, but afterwards, when he was going out, he met Robin and stopped him.
“Robin, what is this that your father has been telling me about Frederick Massingbird?”
“Only to think of it!” was Robin’s response, growing somewhat excited. “To think how our ways get balked! I had swore to be revenged—as you know, sir—and now the power of revenge is took from me! He’s gone where my revenge can’t reach him. It’s of no good—I see it—for us to plan. Our plans ’ll never be carried out, if they don’t please God.”
“And it was Frederick Massingbird?”
“It was Frederick Massingbird,” assented Robin, his breath coming thick and fast with agitation. “We had got but one little ewe lamb, and he must leave the world that was open to him, and pick her up, and destroy her! I ain’t calm yet to talk of it, sir.”
“But how did you ascertain this? Your suspicions, you know, were directed to Mr. John Massingbird. Wrongly, as I believed; as I told you.”
“Yes, they were wrong,” said Robin. “I was put upon the wrong scent: but not wilfully. You might remember a dairy wench that lived at Verner’s Pride in them days, sir; Dolly, her name was; she that went and got married after to Joe Stubbs, Mr. Bitterworth’s waggoner. It was she told me, sir. I used to be up there a good bit with Stubbs, and one day when I was sick and ill there, the wife told me she had seen one of the gentlemen come from the Willow Pool that past night. I pressed her to tell me which of them, and at first she said she couldn’t, and then she said it was Mr. John. I never thought but she told me right, but it seems—as she confesses now—that she only said it was him to satisfy me, and because she thought he was dead, over in Australia, and it wouldn’t matter if she did say it. I worried her life out over it, she says: and it’s like I did. She says now, if she was put upon her Bible oath, she couldn’t say which of the gentlemen it was, more nor the other: but she did see one of ’em.”
“But this is not telling me how you know it to have been Mr. Frederick, Robin.”
“I learnt it from Mr. John,” was the reply. “When he come back I saw him; I knew it was him; and I got a gun and watched for him. I meant to take my revenge, sir. Roy, he found me out; and in a night or two, he brought me face to face with Mr. John, and Mr. John, he told me the truth. But he’d only tell it me upon my giving him my promise not to expose his brother. So I’m balked even of that revenge. I had always counted on the exposing of the man,” added Robin, in a dreamy tone, as if he were looking back into the past: “when I thought it was Mr. John, I only waited for Luke Roy to come home, that I might expose him. I thought Luke, being so much with him in Australia, might have heard a slip word drop as would confirm it. Somehow, though I thought Dolly Stubbs spoke truth, I didn’t feel so sure of her, as to noise it abroad.”
“You say it was Mr. John Massingbird who told you it was his brother?”
“He told me, sir. He told me at Roy’s, when he was a hiding there. When the folks here was going mad about the ghost, I knowed who the ghost was, and had my laugh at ’em. It seemed that I could laugh then,” added Robin, looking at Mr. Verner, as if he deemed an apology for the words necessary. “My mind was set at rest.”
Did a thought cross Lionel Verner that John Massingbird, finding his own life in peril from Robin’s violence, had thrown the blame upon his brother falsely? It might have done so, but for his own deeply-rooted suspicions. That John would not be scrupulously particular to truth, he believed, where his own turn was to be served. Lionel at any rate felt that he should like, for his own satisfaction, to have the matter set at rest, and he took his way to Verner’s Pride.
John Massingbird, his costume not improved in elegance, or his clay pipe in length, was lounging at his ease on one of the amber damask satin couches of the drawing-room, his feet on the back of a proximate chair, and his slippers fallen off on the carpet. A copious tumbler of rum-and-water—his favourite beverage since his return—was on a table, handy; and there he lay, enjoying his ease.
“Halloa, old fellow! How are you?” was his greeting to Lionel, given without changing his position in the least.
“Massingbird, I want to speak to you,” rejoined Lionel. “I have been to see old Matthew Frost, and he has said something which surprises me—”
“The old man’s about to make a start of it, I hear,” was the interruption of Massingbird.
“He cannot last long. He has been speaking—naturally—of that unhappy business of his daughter’s. He lays it to the door of Frederick; and Robin tells me that he had the information from you.”
“I was obliged to give it him, in self-defence,” said John Massingbird. “The fellow had got it into his head, in some unaccountable manner, that I was the black sheep, and was prowling about with a gun, ready capped and loaded, to put a bullet into me. I don’t set so much store by my life as some fidgets do, but it’s not pleasant to be shot off in that summary fashion. So I sent for Mr. Robin and satisfied him that he was making the same blunder that Deerham just then was doing—mistaking one brother for the other.”
“Was it Frederick?”
“Did you know it at the time?”
“No. Never suspected him at all.”
“Then how did you learn it afterwards?”
John Massingbird took his legs from the chair. He rose, and brought himself to an anchor on a seat facing Lionel, puffing still at his incessant pipe.
“I don’t mind trusting you, old chap, being one of us, and I couldn’t help trusting Robin Frost. Roy, he knew it before: at least, his wife did; which amounts to something of the same; and she spoke of it to me. I have ordered them to keep a close tongue, under pain of unheard-of penalties. Which I should never inflict: but it’s as well to let poor Fred’s memory rest in quiet and good odour. I believe honestly it’s the only scrape of the sort he ever got into. He was cold and cautious.”
“But how did you learn it?” reiterated Lionel.
“I’ll tell you. I learnt it from Luke Roy.”
“From Luke Roy!” repeated Lionel, more at sea than before.
“Do you remember that I had sent Luke on to London a few days before this happened? He was to get things forward for our voyage. He was fou—as the French say—after Rachel; and what did he do but come back again in secret, to get a last look at her, perhaps a word. It happened to be this very night, and Luke was a partial witness to the scene at the Willow Pond. He saw and heard her meeting with Frederick; heard quite enough to know that there was no chance for him; and he was stealing away, leaving Fred and Rachel at the termination of their quarrel, when he met his mother. She knew him, it seems, and to that encounter we are indebted for her display when before Mr. Verner, and her lame account of the ‘ghost.’ You must recollect it. She got up the ghost tale to excuse her own terror; to throw the scent off Luke. The woman says her life, since, has been that of a martyr, ever fearing that suspicion might fall upon her son. She recognised him beyond doubt; and nearly died with the consternation. He glided off, never speaking to her, but the fear and consternation remained. She recognised, too, she says, the voice of Frederick as the one that was quarrelling: but she did not dare confess it. For one thing, she knew not how far Luke might be implicated.”
Lionel leaned his brow on his hand, deep in thought. “How far was Frederick implicated?” he asked in a low tone. “Did he—did he put her into the pond?”
“No!” burst forth John Massingbird, with a vehemence that sent the ashes of his pipe flying. “Fred would not be guilty of such a crime as that, any more than you or I would. He had—he had made vows to the girl, and broken them; and that was the extent of it. No such great sin, after all, or it wouldn’t be so fashionable a one,” carelessly added John Massingbird.
Lionel waited in silence.
“By what Luke could gather,” went on John, “it appeared that Rachel had seen Fred that night with his cousin Sibylla—your wife now. What she had seen or heard, goodness knows: but enough to prove to her that Fred’s real love was given to Sibylla; that she was his contemplated wife. It drove Rachel mad: Fred had probably filled her up with the idea that the honour was destined for herself. Men are deceivers ever, and women soft, you know, Lionel.”
“And they quarrelled over it?”
“They quarrelled over it. Rachel, awakened out of her credulity, met him with bitter reproaches. Luke could not hear what was said towards its close. The meeting—no doubt a concerted one—had been in that grove in view of the willow-pool, the very spot that Master Luke had chosen for his own hiding-place. They left it and walked towards Verner’s Pride, disputing vehemently; Roy made off the other way, and the last he saw of them, when they were nearly out of sight, was a final explosion, in which they parted. Fred set off to run towards Verner’s Pride, and Rachel came flying back towards the pond. There’s not a shadow of doubt that in her passion, her unhappy state of feeling, she flung herself in: and if Luke had only waited two minutes longer, he might have been in at the death—as we say by the foxes. That’s the solution of what has puzzled Deerham for years, Lionel.”
“Could Luke not have saved her?”
“He never knew she was in the pond. Whether the unexpected sight of his mother scared his senses away, he has often wondered; but he heard neither the splash in the water nor the shriek. He made off pretty quick, he says, for fear his mother should attempt to stop him, or proclaim his presence aloud—an inconvenient procedure, since he was supposed to be in London. Luke never knew of her death until we were on the voyage. I got to London only in time to go on board the ship in the docks, and we had been out for days at sea before he learnt that Rachel was dead, or I that Luke had been down, on the sly, to Deerham. I had to get over that precious sea-sickness, before entering upon that, or any other talk, I can tell you. It’s a shame it should attack men!”
“I suspected Fred at the time,” said Lionel.
“You did! Well, I did not. My suspicions had turned to a very different quarter.”
“O bother! where’s the good of ripping it up, now it’s over and done with?” retorted John Massingbird. “There’s the paper of baccy by your elbow, chum. Chuck it here.”
CHAPTER LVI. A CRISIS IN SIBYLLA’S LIFE.
Sibylla Verner improved neither in health nor in temper. Body and mind were alike diseased. As the spring had advanced, her weakness appeared to increase; the symptoms of consumption became more palpable. She would not allow that she was ill; she no doubt thought that there was nothing serious the matter with her; nothing, as she told everybody, but the vexing after Verner’s Pride.
Dr. West had expressed an opinion that her irritability, which she could neither conceal nor check, was the result of her state of health. He was very likely right. One thing was certain: that since she grew weaker and worse, this unhappy frame of mind had greatly increased. The whole business of her life appeared to be to grumble; to be cross, snappish, fretful. If her body was diseased, most decidedly her temper was also. The great grievance of quitting Verner’s Pride she made a plea for the indulgence of every complaint under the sun. She could no longer gather a gay crowd of visitors around her; she had lost the opportunity with Verner’s Pride: she could no longer indulge in unlimited orders for new dresses and bonnets, and other charming adjuncts to the toilette, without reference to how they were to be paid for: she had not a dozen servants at her beck and call; if she wanted to pay a visit, there was no elegant equipage, the admiration of all beholders, to convey her. She had lost all with Verner’s Pride. Not a day—scarcely an hour—passed, but one or other, or all of these vexations, were made the subject of fretful, open repining. Not to Lady Verner: Sibylla would not have dared to annoy her; not to Decima or to Lucy; but to her husband. How weary his ear was, how weary his spirit, no tongue could tell. She tried him in every way—she did nothing but find fault with him. When he stayed out, she grumbled at him for staying, meeting him with reproaches on his entrance; when he remained in, she grumbled at him. In her sad frame of mind, it was essential—there are frames of mind in which it is essential, as the medical men will tell you; where the sufferer cannot help it—that she should have some object on which to vent her irritability. Not being in her own house, there was but her husband. He was the only one sufficiently nearly connected with her to whom the courtesies of life could be dispensed with; and therefore he came in for it all. At Verner’s Pride there would have been her servants to share it with him; at Dr. West’s there would have been her sisters; at Lady Verner’s there was her husband alone. Times upon times Lionel felt inclined to run away; just as disobedient boys run to sea.
The little hint, dropped by Dr. West, touching the past, had not been without its fruits in Sibylla’s mind. It lay and smouldered there. Had Lionel been attached to Lucy?—had there been love-scenes, love-making between them?—Sibylla asked herself the question ten times in a day. Now and then she let drop a sharp acrid bit of venom to him—his “old love, Lucy.” Lionel would receive it with impassibility, never answering.
On the day spoken of in the last chapter, when Matthew Frost was dying, she was more ill at ease, more intensely irritable than usual. Lady Verner had gone with some friends to Heartburg, and was not expected home until night; Decima and Lucy walked out in the afternoon, and Sibylla was alone. Lionel had not been home since he went out in the morning to see Matthew Frost. The fact was, Lionel had had a busy day of it: what with old Matthew and what with his conversation with John Massingbird afterwards, certain work which ought to have been done in the morning he had left till the afternoon. It was nothing unusual for him to be out all day: but Sibylla was choosing to make his being out on this day an unusual grievance. As the hours of the afternoon passed on and on, and it grew late, and nobody appeared, she could scarcely suppress her temper, her restlessness. She was a bad one to be alone; had never liked to be alone for five minutes in her life: and thence perhaps the secret of her having made so much of a companion of her maid, Benoite. In point of fact, Sibylla Verner had no resources within herself; and she made up for the want by indulging in her naturally bad temper?
“Where were they? Where was Decima? Where was Lucy? Above all, where was Lionel?” Sibylla, not being able to answer the questions, suddenly began to get up a pretty little plot of imagination—that Lucy and Lionel were somewhere together. Had Sibylla possessed one of Sam Weller’s patent self-acting microscopes, able to afford a view through space and stairs, and deal doors, she might have seen Lionel seated alone in the study at Verner’s Pride, amidst his leases and papers; and Lucy in Clay Lane, paying visits with Decima from cottage to cottage. Not possessing one of those admirable instruments—if somebody at the West-end would but set up a stock of them for sale, what a lot of customers he’d have!—Sibylla was content to cherish the mental view she had conjured up, and to improve upon it. All the afternoon she kept improving upon it, until she worked herself up to that agreeable pitch of distorted excitement when a person does not know what is real, and what fancy. It was a regular April day; one of sunshine and storm: now, the sun shining out bright and clear; now, the rain pattering against the panes; and Sibylla wandered from room to room, up stairs and down, as stormy as the weather.
Had her dreams been types of fact? Upon glancing from the window, during a sharper shower than any they had yet had, she saw her husband coming in at the large gates, Lucy Tempest on his arm, over whom he was holding an umbrella. They were walking slowly, conversing—as it seemed—confidentially. It was quite enough for Mrs. Verner.
But it was a very innocent, accidental meeting, and the confidential conversation was only about the state of poor old Matthew Frost. Lionel had taken Clay Lane on his road home for the purpose of inquiring after old Matthew. There, standing in the kitchen, he found Lucy. Decima was with the old man, and it was uncertain how long she would stay with him: and Lucy, who had no umbrella, was waiting for the shower to be over to get back to Deerham Court. Lionel offered her the shelter of his. As they advanced through the court-yard, Lucy saw Sibylla at the small drawing-room window—the ante-room, as it was called—and nodded a smiling greeting to her. She did not return it, and Lionel saw that his wife looked black as night.
They came in, Lucy untying her bonnet-strings, and addressing Sibylla in a pleasant tone.
“What a sharp storm!” she said. “And I think it means to last, for there seems no sign of its clearing up. I don’t know how I should have come home but for Mr. Verner’s umbrella.”
No reply from Mrs. Verner.
“Decima is with old Matthew Frost,” continued Lucy, passing into the drawing-room; “she desired that we would not wait dinner for her.”
Then began Sibylla. She turned upon Lionel in a state of perfect fury, her temper, like a torrent, bearing down all before it—all decency, all consideration.
“Where have you been? You and she?”
“Do you allude to Lucy?” he asked, pausing before he replied, and looking at her with surprise. “We have been nowhere. I saw her at old Frost’s as I came by, and brought her home.”
“It is a falsehood!” raved Sibylla. “You are carrying on a disgraceful intimacy with each other in secret. I have been blind long enough, but—”
Lionel caught her arm, pointing in peremptory silence to the drawing-room door, which was not closed, his white face betraying his inward agitation.
“She is there!” he whispered. “She can hear you.”
But Sibylla’s passion was terrible—not to be controlled. All the courtesies of life were lost sight of—its social usages were as nothing. She flung Lionel’s hand away from her.
“I hope she can hear me!” broke like a torrent from her trembling lips. “It is time she heard, and others also! I have been blind, I say, long enough. But for papa, I might have gone on in my blindness to the end.”
How was he to stop it? That Lucy must hear every word as plainly as he did, he knew; words that fell upon his ear, and blistered them. There was no egress for her—no other door—she was there in a cage, as may be said. He did what was the best to be done under the circumstances: he walked into the presence of Lucy, leaving Sibylla to herself.
At least it might have been the best in some cases. It was not in this. Sibylla, lost in that moment to all sense of the decency due to herself, to her husband, to Lucy, allowed her wild fancies, her passion, to over-master everything; and she followed him in. Her eyes blazing, her cheeks aflame, she planted herself in front of Lucy.
“Are you not ashamed of yourself, Lucy Tempest, to wile my husband from me?”
Lucy looked perfectly aghast. That she thought Mrs. Verner had suddenly gone mad may be excused to her. A movement of fear escaped her, and she drew involuntarily nearer to Lionel, as if for protection.
“No! you shan’t go to him! There has been enough of it. You shan’t side with him against me! He is my husband! How dare you forget it? You are killing me amongst you.”
“I—don’t—know—what—you—mean, Mrs. Verner,” gasped Lucy, the words coming in jerks from her bloodless lips.
“Can you deny that he cares for you more than he does for me? And you care for him in return! You—”
“Be silent, Sibylla!” burst forth Lionel. “Do you know that you are speaking to Miss Tempest?”
“I won’t be silent!” she reiterated, her voice rising to a scream. “It is time I spoke when you and Lucy Tempest carry on a secret understanding. You know you do! and you know that you meant to marry her once! Is it—”
Pushing his wife on a chair, though gently, with one arm, Lionel caught the hand of Lucy, and placed it within the other, his chest heaving with emotion. He led her out of the room, and through the ante-room in silence, to the door, halting there. She was shaking all over, and the tears were coursing down her cheeks. He took both her hands in his, his action one of deprecating entreaty, his words falling in the tenderest accents from between his bloodless lips.
“Will you bear for my sake, Lucy? She is my wife. Heaven knows, upon any other I would retort the insult.”
How Lucy’s heart was wrung!—wrung for him. The insult to herself she could afford: being innocent, it fell with very slender force; but she felt keenly for his broken peace. Had it been to save her life, she could not help returning the pressure of his hand as she looked up to him her affirmative answer; and she saw no wrong or harm in the pressure. Lionel closed the door upon her, and returned to his wife.
A change had come over Sibylla. She had thrown herself at full length on a sofa, and was beginning to sob. He went up to her, and spoke gravely, not unkindly, his arms folded before him.
“Sibylla, when is this line of conduct to cease? I am nearly wearied out—nearly,” he added, putting his hand to his brow, “wearied out. If I could bear the exposure for myself, I cannot bear it for my wife.”
She rose up and sat down on the sofa facing him. The hectic of her cheeks had turned to scarlet.
“You do love her! You care for her more than you care for me. Can you deny it?”
“What part of my conduct has ever told you so?”
“I don’t care for conduct,” she fractiously retorted. “I remember what papa said, and that’s enough. He said he saw how it was in the old days—that you loved her. What business had you to love her?”
“Stay, Sibylla! Carry your reflections back, and answer yourself. In those old days, when both of you were before me to choose—at any rate, to ask—I chose you, leaving her. Is it not a sufficient answer?”
Sibylla threw back her head on the sofa-frame, and began to cry.
“From the hour that I made you my wife, I have striven to do my duty by you, tenderly as husband can do it. Why do you force me to reiterate this declaration, which I have made before?” he added, his face working with emotion. “Neither by word nor action have I been false to you. I have never for the briefest moment been guilty behind your back of that which I would not be guilty of in your presence. No! my allegiance of duty has never swerved from you. So help me Heaven!”
“You can’t swear to me that you don’t love her!” was Sibylla’s retort.
It appeared that he did not intend to swear it. He went and stood against the mantel-piece, in his old favourite attitude, leaning his elbow on it and his face upon his hand: a face that betrayed his inward pain. Sibylla began again: to tantalise him seemed a necessity of her life.
“I might have expected trouble when I consented to marry you. Rachel Frost’s fate might have taught me the lesson.”
“Stay,” said Lionel, lifting his head. “It is not the first hint of the sort that you have given me. Tell me honestly what it is you mean.”
“You need not ask: you know already. Rachel owed her disgrace to you.”
Lionel paused a moment before he rejoined. When he did, it was in a quiet tone.
“Do you speak from your own opinion?”
“No, I don’t. The secret was entrusted to me.”
“By whom? You must tell me, Sibylla.”
“I don’t know why I should not,” she slowly said, as if in deliberation. “My husband trusted me with it.”
“Do you allude to Frederick Massingbird?” asked Lionel, in a tone whose coldness he could not help.
“Yes, I do. He was my husband,” she resentfully added. “One day, on the voyage to Australia, he dropped a word that made me think he knew something about that business of Rachel’s, and I teased him to tell me who it was who had played the rogue. He said it was Lionel Verner.”
A pause. But for Lionel’s admirable disposition, how terribly he might have retorted upon her, knowing what he had learnt that day.
“Did he tell you I had completed the roguery by pushing her into the pond?” he inquired.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Perhaps he did.”
“And—doubting it—you could marry me!” quietly remarked Lionel.
She made no answer.
“Let me set you right on that point once for all, then,” he continued. “I was innocent as you. I had nothing to do with it. Rachel and her father were held in too great respect by my uncle—nay, by me, I may add—for me to offer her anything but respect. You were misinformed, Sibylla.”
She laughed scornfully. “It is easy to say so.”
“As it was for Frederick Massingbird to say to you what he did.”
“If it came to the choice,” she retorted, “I’d rather believe him than you.”
Bitter aggravation lay in her tone, bitter aggravation in her gesture. Was Lionel tempted to forget himself?—to set her right? If so, he beat the temptation down. All men would not have been so forbearing.
“Sibylla, I have told you truth,” he simply said.
“Which is as much as to say that Fred told—” she was vehemently beginning, when the words were stopped by the entrance of John Massingbird. John, caught in the shower near Deerham Court, made no scruple of running to it for shelter, and was in time to witness Sibylla’s angry tones, and inflamed face.
What precisely happened Lionel could never afterwards recal. He remembered John’s free and easy salutation, “What’s the row?”—he remembered Sibylla’s torrent of words in answer. As little given to reticence or delicacy in the presence of her cousin, as she had been in that of Lucy Tempest, she renewed her accusation of her husband with regard to Rachel: she called on him—John—to bear testimony that Fred was truthful. And Lionel remembered little more until he saw Sibylla lying back gasping, the blood pouring from her mouth.
John Massingbird—perhaps in his eagerness to contradict her as much as in his regard to make known the truth—had answered her all too effectually before Lionel could stop him. Words that burnt into the brain of Sibylla Verner, and turned the current of her life’s pulses.
It was her husband of that voyage, Frederick Massingbird, who had brought the evil upon Rachel, who had been with her by the pond, that night.
As the words left John Massingbird’s lips, she rose up, and stood staring at him. Presently she essayed to speak, but not a sound issued from her drawn lips. Whether passion impeded her utterance, or startled dismay, or whether it may have been any physical impediment, it was evident that she could not get the words out.
Fighting her hands on the empty air, fighting for breath or for speech, so she remained for a passing space: and then the blood began to trickle from her mouth. In the excitement, she had burst a blood-vessel.
Lionel crossed over to her: her best support. He held her in his arms, tenderly and considerately, as though she had never given him an unwifely word. Stretching out his other hand to the bell, he rang it loudly. And then he looked at Mr. Massingbird.
“Run for your life,” he whispered. “Get Jan here.”