Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Verner's Pride - Part 30
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER LIX.—WAS IT A SPECTRE?
If the fair forms crowding to the fête at Deerham Hall had but known how near that fête was to being shorn of its master’s presence, they had gone less hopefully. Scarcely one of the dowagers and chaperones bidden to it but cast a longing eye to the heir, for their daughters’ sake; scarcely a daughter but experienced a fluttering of the heart, as the fond fancy presented itself that she might be singled out for the chosen partner of Sir Edmund Hautley: for the night, at any rate; and—perhaps—for the long night of the future. But when the clock struck six that evening, Sir Edmund Hautley had not arrived.
Miss Hautley was in a fever,—as nearly in one as it is in the nature of a cold single lady of fifty-eight to go, when some overwhelming disappointment falls abruptly. According to arranged plans, Sir Edmund was to have been at home by middle day, crossing by the night boat from the Continent. Middle day came and went; afternoon came and went; evening came—and he had not come. Miss Hautley would have set the telegraph to work, had she known where to set it to.
But good luck was in store for her. A train, arriving between six and seven, brought him: and his carriage—the carriage of his late father, which had been waiting at the station since eleven o’clock in the morning—conveyed him home.
Very considerably astonished was Sir Edmund to find the programme which had been carved out for the night’s amusement. He did not like it; it jarred upon his sense of propriety; and he spoke a hint of this to Miss Hautley. It was the death of his father which had called him home; a father with whom he had lived for the last few years of his life upon terms of estrangement—at any rate, upon one point: was it seemly that his inauguration should be one of gaiety? Yes, Miss Hautley decisively answered. Their friends were not meeting to bewail Sir Rufus’s death; that took place months ago; but to welcome his, Sir Edmund’s, return, and his entrance on his inheritance.
Sir Edmund—a sunny-tempered, yielding man, the very opposite in spirit to his dead father, to his live aunt—conceded the point: doing it with all the better grace, perhaps, that there was now no help for it. In an hour or two’s time the guests would be arriving. Miss Hautley inquired curiously as to the point upon which he and Sir Rufus had been at issue: she had never been able to learn it from Sir Rufus. Neither did it now appear that she was likely to learn it from Sir Edmund. It was a private matter, he said, a smile crossing his lips as he spoke: one entirely between himself and his father, and he could not speak of it. It had driven him abroad she believed, Miss Hautley remarked, vexed that she was still to remain in the dark. Yes, acquiesced Sir Edmund: it had driven him abroad and kept him there.
He was ready, and stood in his place to receive his guests; a tall man, of some five-and-thirty years, with a handsome face and pleasant smile upon it. He greeted his old friends cordially, those with whom he had been intimate, and was laughing and talking with the Countess of Elmsley when the announcement “Lady and Miss Verner” caught his ear.
It caused him to turn abruptly. Breaking off in the midst of a sentence, he quitted the countess and went to meet those who had entered. Lady Verner’s greeting was a somewhat elaborate one, and he looked round impatiently for Decima.
She stood in the shade behind her mother. Decima? Was that Decima? What had she done to her cheeks? They wore the crimson hectic which were all too characteristic of Sibylla’s. Sir Edmund took her hand.
“I trust you are well?”
“Quite well, thank you,” was her murmured answer, drawing away the hand which had barely touched his.
Nothing could be more quiet than the meeting, nothing more simple than the words spoken: nothing, it may be said, more commonplace. But that Decima was suffering from some intense agitation, there could be no doubt: and the next moment her face had turned of that same ghastly hue which had startled her brother Lionel when he was handing her into the carriage. Sir Edmund continued speaking with them a few minutes, and then was called off to receive other guests.
“Have you forgotten how to dance, Edmund?”
The question came from Miss Hautley, disturbing him as he made the centre of a group to whom he was speaking of his Indian life.
“I don’t suppose I have,” he said, turning to her. “Why?”
“People are thinking so,” said Miss Hautley. “The music has been bursting out into fresh attempts this last half-hour, and impatience is getting irrepressible. They cannot begin, Edmund, without you. Your partner is waiting.”
“My partner?” reiterated Sir Edmund. “I have asked nobody yet.”
“But I have, for you. At least, I have as good as done it. Lady Constance—”
“Oh, my dear aunt, you are very kind,” he hastily interrupted; “but when I do dance—which is of rare occurrence—I like to choose my own partner. I must do so now.”
“Well, take care, then,” was the answer of Miss Hautley, not deeming it necessary to drop her voice in the least. “The room is anxious to see upon whom it will be fixed: it may be a type, they are saying, of what another choice of yours may be.”
Sir Edmund laughed good-humouredly, making a joke of the allusion. “Then I must walk round deliberately and look out for myself—as it is said some of our royal reigning potentates have done. Thank you for the hint.”
But, instead of walking round deliberately, Sir Edmund Hautley walked direct to one point of the room, halting before Lady Verner and Decima. He bent to the former, speaking a few words in a joking tone.
“I am bade to fix upon a partner, Lady Verner. May it be your daughter?”
Lady Verner looked at Decima. “She so seldom dances. I do not think you will persuade her.”
“I think I can,” he softly said, holding out his arm. And Decima rose and put hers into it without a word.
“How capricious she is!” remarked Lady Verner to the Countess of Elmsley, who was sitting next her. “If I had pressed her she would probably have said no. As she has done so many times.”
He took his place at the head of the room, Decima by his side in her white silk robes. Decima with her wondrous beauty, and the hectic on her cheeks again. Many an envious pair of eyes was cast to her. “That dreadful old maid, Decima Verner!” was amongst the compliments launched at her. “She to usurp him! How had my Lady Verner contrived to manœuvre for it?”
But Sir Edmund did not appear dissatisfied with his partner, if the room was. He paid a vast deal more attention to her than he did to the dance: the latter he put out more than once, his head and eyes being bent, whispering to Decima. Before the dance was over the hectic on her cheeks had grown deeper.
“Are you afraid of the night air?” he asked, leading her through the conservatory to the door at its other end.
“No. It never hurts me.”
He proceeded along the gravel path round to the other side of the house: there he opened the glass doors of a room and entered it. It led into another, bright with fire.
“It is my own sitting-room,” he observed. “Nobody will intrude upon us here.”
Taking up the poker, he stirred the fire into a blaze. Then he put it down and turned to her, as she stood on the hearth-rug.
It was only a simple name; but Sir Edmund’s whole frame was quivering with emotion as he spoke it. He clasped her to him with a strangely fond gesture, and bent his face on hers.
“I left my farewell on your lips when I quitted you, Decima. I must take my welcome from them now.”
She burst into tears as she clung to him.
“Sir Rufus sent for me when he was dying,” she whispered. “Edmund, he said he was sorry to have opposed you; he said he would not if the time could come over again.”
“I know it,” he answered. “I have his full consent; nay, his blessing. They are but a few words, but they were the last he ever wrote. You shall see them, Decima; he calls you my future wife, Lady Hautley. Oh, my darling! what a long, a cruel separation it has been!”
Ay! far more long, more cruel for Decima than for him. She was feeling it bitterly now, as the tears poured down her face. Sir Edmund placed her in a chair. He hung over her scarcely less agitated than she was, soothing her with all the fondness of his true heart, with the sweet words she had once known so well. He turned to the door when she grew calmer.
“I am going to bring Lady Verner. It is time she knew it.”
Not through the garden this time, but through the open passages of the house, lined with servants, went Sir Edmund. Lady Verner was in the seat where they left her. He made his way to her, and held his arm out that she might take it.
“Will you allow me to monopolise you for a few minutes?” he said. “I have a tale to tell in which you may feel interested.”
“About India?” she asked, as she rose. “I suppose you used to meet some of my old friends there?”
“Not about India,” he answered, leading her from the room. “India can wait. About some one nearer and dearer to us than any now in India. Lady Verner, when I asked you just now to permit me to fix upon your daughter as a partner, I could have added for life. Will you give me Decima?”
Had Sir Edmund Hautley asked for herself, Lady Verner could scarcely have been more astonished. He poured into her ear the explanation, the whole tale of their old love, the inveterate opposition to it of Sir Rufus—which had driven him abroad.
“It was that caused you to exile yourself!” she reiterated in her amazement.
“It was, Lady Verner. Marry in opposition to my father, I would not—and had I been willing to brave him, Decima would not. So I left my home: I left Decima: my father perfectly understanding that our engagement existed still; that it only lay in abeyance until happier times. When he was dying, he repented of his harshness, and recalled his interdict; by letter to me, personally to Decima. He died with a blessing for us both on his lips. Jan can tell you so.”
“What has Jan to do with it?” exclaimed Lady Verner.
“Sir Rufus made a confidant of Jan, and charged him with the message to me. It was Jan who enclosed to me the few words my father was able to trace.”
“I think Jan might have imparted the secret to me,” resentfully spoke Lady Verner. “It is just like ungrateful Jan.”
“Jan ungrateful?—never!” spoke Sir Edmund warmly. “There’s not a truer heart breathing, than Jan’s. It was not his secret, and I expect he did not consider himself at liberty to tell even you. Decima would have imparted it to you years ago, when I went away, but for one thing.”
“What may that have been?” asked Lady Verner.
“Because we feared, she and I, that your pride would be so wounded, and not unjustly, at my father’s unreasonable opposition, that you might, in retaliation, forbid the alliance, then and always. You see I am candid, Lady Verner. I can afford to be, can I not?”
“Decima ought to have told me,” was all the reply given by Lady Verner.
“And Decima would have told you, at all hazards, but for my urgent entreaties. The blame is wholly mine, Lady Verner. You must forgive me.”
“In what lay the objection of Sir Rufus?” she asked.
“I honestly believe that it arose entirely from that dogged self-will—may I be forgiven for speaking thus irreverently of my dead father!—which was his great characteristic through life. It was I who chose Decima, not he; and therefore my father opposed it. To Decima and to Decima’s family he could not have any possible objection—in fact he had not. But he liked to oppose his will to mine. I—if I know anything of myself—am the very reverse of self-willed, and I had always yielded to him. No question, until this, had ever arisen that was of vital importance to my life and its happiness.”
“Sir Rufus may have resented her want of fortune,” remarked Lady Verner.
“I think not. He was not a covetous or a selfish man; and our revenues are such that I can make ample settlements on my wife. No, it was the self-will. But it is all over, and I can openly claim her. You will give her to me, Lady Verner?”
“I suppose I must,” was the reply of my lady. “But people have been calling her an old maid.”
Sir Edmund laughed.
“How they will be disappointed! Some of their eyes may be opened to-night. I shall not deem it necessary to make a secret of our engagement now.”
“You must permit me to ask one question, Sir Edmund. Have you and Decima corresponded?”
“No. We separated for the time entirely. The engagement existing in our own hearts alone.”
“I am glad to hear it. I did not think Decima would have carried on a correspondence unknown to me.”
“I am certain that she would not. And for that reason I never asked her to do it. Until I met Decima to-night, Lady Verner, we have had no communication with each other since I left. But I am quite sure that neither of us has doubted the other for a single moment.”
“It has been a long while to wait,” mused Lady Verner, as they entered the presence of Decima, who started up to receive them.
When they returned to the rooms, Sir Edmund with Decima, Lady Verner by her daughter’s side, the first object that met their view was Jan—Jan at a ball! Lady Verner lifted her eyebrows: she had never believed that Jan would really show himself where he must be so entirely out of place. But there Jan was: in decent dress, too: black clothes, and a white neckcloth and gloves. Jan’s great hands laid hold of both Sir Edmund’s.
“I’m uncommon glad you are back!” cried he—which was his polite phrase for expressing satisfaction.
“So am I, Jan,” heartily answered Sir Edmund. “I have never had a real friend, Jan, since I left you.”
“We can be friends still,” said plain Jan.
“Ay,” said Sir Edmund, meaningly, “and brothers.” But the last word was spoken in Jan’s ear alone, for they were in a crowd now.
“To see you here, very much surprises me, Jan,” remarked Lady Verner, asperity in her tone. “I hope you will contrive to behave properly.”
Lady Mary Elmsley, then standing with them, laughed.
“What are you afraid he should do, Lady Verner?”
“He was not made for society,” said Lady Verner, with asperity.
“Nor society for me,” returned Jan good-humouredly. “I’d rather be watching a case of fever.”
“Oh, Jan!” cried Lady Mary, laughing still.
“So I would,” repeated Jan. “At somebody’s bedside, in my easy coat, I feel at home. And I feel that I am doing good; that’s more. This is nothing but waste of time.”
“You hear?” appealed Lady Verner to them, as if Jan’s avowal were a passing proof of her assertion—that he and society were antagonistic to each other. “I wonder you took the thought to attire yourself decently,” she added, her face retaining its strong vexation. “Had anybody asked me, I should have given it as my opinion that you had not things fit to appear in.”
“I have got these,” returned Jan, looking down at his clothes. “Won’t they do? It’s my funeral suit.”
The unconscious matter-of-fact style of Jan’s avowal was beyond everything. Lady Verner was struck dumb, Sir Edmund smiled, and Mary Elmsley laughed outright.
“Oh, Jan!” said she, “you’ll be a child all your days. What do you mean by your ‘funeral suit’?”
“Anybody might know that,” was Jan’s answer to Lady Mary. “It’s the suit I keep for funerals. A doctor is always getting asked to attend them: and if he does not go, he offends the people.”
“You might have kept the information to yourself,” rebuked Lady Verner.
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” asked Jan. “Aren’t they good enough to come in?”
He turned his head round, to get a glance at the said suit behind. Sir Edmund laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder. Young as Jan had been before Edmund Hautley went out, they had lived close friends.
“The clothes are all right, Jan. And if you had come without a coat at all, you would have been equally welcome to me.”
“I should not have gone to this sort of thing anywhere else, you know: it is not in my line, as my mother says. I came to see you.”
“And I would rather see you, Jan, than anybody else in the room—with one exception,” was the reply of Sir Edmund. “I am sorry not to see Lionel.”
“He couldn’t come,” answered Jan. “His wife turned crusty, and said she’d come if he did—something of that—and so he stayed at home. She is very ill, and she wants to ignore it, and go out all the same. It is not fit she should.”
“Pray do you mean to dance, Jan?” inquired Lady Verner, the question being put ironically.
“Not I,” returned Jan. “Who’d dance with me?”
“I’ll dance with you, Jan,” said Lady Mary.
Jan shook his head.
“I might get my feet entangled in the petticoats.”
“Not you, Jan,” said Sir Edmund, laughing. “I should risk that, if a lady asked me.”
“She’d not care to dance with me,” returned Jan, looking at Mary Elmsley. “She only says it out of good nature.”
“No, Jan, I don’t think I do,” avowed Lady Mary. “I should like to dance with you.”
“I’d stand up with you, if I stood up with anybody,” replied Jan. “But where’s the good of it? I don’t know the figures, and should only put you out, as well as everybody else.”
So, what with his ignorance of the figures, and his dreaded awkwardness amidst the trains, Jan was allowed to rest in peace. Mary Elmsley told him that, if he would come over sometimes to their house in an evening, she and her young sisters would practise the figures with him, so that he might learn them. It was Jan’s turn to laugh now. The notion of his practising dancing, or having evenings to waste on it, amused him considerably.
“Go to your house to learn dancing!” echoed he. “Folks would be for putting me into a lunatic asylum. If I do find an hour to myself any odd evening, I have to get to my dissection. I went shares the other day in a beautiful subject—”
“I don’t think you need tell me of that, Jan,” interrupted Lady Mary, keeping her countenance.
“I wonder you talk to him, Mary,” observed Lady Verner. “You hear how he repays you. He means it for good breeding, perhaps.”
“I don’t mean it for rudeness, at any rate,” returned Jan. “Lady Mary knows that. Don’t you?” he added, turning to her.
A strangely thrilling expression in her eyes as she looked at him was her only answer. “I would rather have that sort of rudeness from you, Jan,” said she, “than the world’s hollow politeness. There is so much of false—”
Mary Emsley’s sentence was never concluded. What was it that had broken in upon them? What object was that, gliding into the room like a ghost, on whom all eyes were strained with a terrible fascination? Was it a ghost? It appeared ghastly enough for one. Was it one of Jan’s “subjects” come after him to the ball? Was it a corpse? It looked more like that than anything else. A corpse bedizened with jewels.
“She’s mad!” exclaimed Jan, who was the first to recover his speech.
“What is it?” ejaculated Sir Edmund, gazing with something very like fear, as the spectre bore down towards him.
“It is my brother’s wife,” explained Jan. “You may see how fit she is to come.”
There was no time for more. Sibylla had her hand held out to Sir Edmund, a wan smile on her ghastly face. His hesitation, his evident discomposure, as he took it, were not lost upon her.
“You have forgotten me, Sir Edmund: but I should have known you anywhere. Your face is bronzed, and it is the only change. Am I so much changed?”
“Yes, you are; greatly changed,” was his involuntary acknowledgment in his surprise. “I should not have recognised you for the Sibylla West of those old days.”
“I was at an age to change,” she said. “I—”
The words were stopped by a fit of coughing. Not the ordinary cough, more or less violent, that we hear in every-day intercourse; but the dreadful cough that tells its tale of the hopeless state within. She had discarded her opera cloak, and stood there, her shoulders, back, neck, all bare and naked; très decollétée, as the French would say; shivering palpably: imparting the idea of a skeleton with rattling bones. Sir Edmund Hautley, quitting Decima, took her arm compassionately and led her to a seat.
Mrs. Verner did not like the attention. Pity, compassion, was in every line of his face—in every gesture of his gentle hand: and she resented it.
“I am not ill,” she declared to Sir Edmund, between the paroxysms of her distressing cough. “The wind seemed to take my throat as I got out of the fly, and it is making me cough a little, but I am not ill. Has Jan been telling you that I am?”
She turned round fiercely on Jan as she spoke. Jan had followed her to her chair, and stood near her: he may have deemed that so evident an invalid should possess a doctor at hand. A good thing that Jan was of equable temper, of easy temperament; otherwise there might have been perpetual open war between him and Sibylla. She did not spare to him her sarcasms and her insults; but never, in all Jan’s intercourse with her, had he resented them.
“No one has told me anything about you in particular, Mrs. Verner,” was the reply of Sir Edmund. “I see that you look delicate.”
“I am not delicate,” she sharply said. “It is nothing. I should be very well, if it were not for Jan.”
“That’s good,” returned Jan. “What do I do?”
“You worry me,” she answered curtly. “You say I must not go out; I must not do this, or do the other. You know you do. Presently you will be saying I must not dance. But I will.”
“Does Lionel know you have come?” inquired Jan, leaving other questions in abeyance.
“I don’t know. It’s nothing to him. He was; not going to stop me. I am quite enchanted that you have come home, Sir Edmund,” she added, turning to the baronet.
“I am pleased myself, Mrs. Verner. Home has more charms for me than the world knows of.”
“You will give us some nice entertainments, I hope,” she continued, her cough beginning to subside. “Sir Rufus lived like a hermit.”
That she would not live to partake of any entertainments he might give, Sir Edmund Hautley felt as sure as though he had then seen her in her grave-clothes. No, not even could he be deceived, or entertain the faintest false hope, though the cough became stilled, and the brilliant hectic of reaction shone on her cheeks. Very beautiful would she then have looked, save for her attenuate frame, with that bright crimson flush and her gleaming golden hair.
Quite sufficiently beautiful to attract partners, and one came up and requested her to dance. She rose in acquiescence, turning her back right upon Jan, who would have interposed.
“Go away,” said she. “I don’t want any lecturing from you.”
But Jan did not go away. He laid his hand impressively upon her shoulder. “You must not do it, Sibylla. There’s a pond outside: it’s just as good you went and threw yourself into that. It would do you no more harm.”
She jerked her shoulder away from him; laughing a little scornful laugh, and saying a few contemptuous words to her partner directed to Jan. Jan propped his back against the wall, and watched her, giving her a few words in his turn.
“As good try to turn a mule, as turn her.”
He watched her through the quadrille. He watched the gradually increasing excitement of her temperament. Nothing could be more pernicious for her; nothing more dangerous; as Jan knew. Presently he watched her plunge into a waltz: and just at that moment his eyes fell on Lionel.
He had just entered; he was shaking hands with Sir Edmund Hautley. Jan made his way to them.
“Have you seen Sibylla, Jan?” was the first question of Lionel to his brother. “I hear she has come.”
For answer, Jan pointed towards a couple amidst the waltzers, and Lionel’s dismayed gaze fell on his wife, whirling round at a mad speed, her eyes glistening, her cheeks burning, her bosom heaving; with the violence of the exertion, her poor breath seemed to rise in loud gasps, shaking her to pieces, and the sweat-drops poured off her brow.
One dismayed exclamation, and Lionel took a step forward. Jan caught him back.
“It is of no use, Lionel. I have tried. It would only make a scene, and be productive of no end. I am not sure, either, whether opposition at the present moment would not do as much harm as is being done.”
“Jan!” cried Sir Edmund, in an under-tone, “is—she—dying?”
“She is not far off it,” was Jan’s answer.
Lionel had yielded to Jan’s remonstrance, and stood back against the wall, like Jan had previously been doing. The waltz came to an end: in the dispersion Lionel lost sight of his wife. A few moments, and strange sounds of noise and confusion were echoing from an adjoining room. Jan went away at his own rate of speed, Lionel in his wake. They had caught the reiterated words, spoken in every phase of terrified tones, “Mrs. Verner! Mrs. Verner!”
Ah, poor Mrs. Verner! That had been her last dance on earth. The terrible exertion had induced a fit of coughing of unnatural violence, and in the straining a blood-vessel had once more broken.
CHAPTER LX. THE LAMP BURNT OUT AT LAST.
From the roof of the house to the floor of the cellar, ominous silence reigned in Deerham Court. Mrs. Verner lay in it—dying. She had been conveyed home from the Hall on the morning following the catastrophe. Miss Hautley and Sir Edmund urged her remaining longer, offering every possible hospitality; but poor Sibylla seemed to have taken a caprice against it. Caprices she would have, up to her last breath. All her words were “Home! home!” Jan said she might be moved with safety; and she was taken there.
She seemed none the worse for the removal—she was none the worse for it. She was dying, but the transit had not increased her danger or her pain. Dr. Hayes had been over in the course of the night, and was now expected again.
“It’s all waste of time, his coming; he can’t do anything; but it is satisfaction for Lionel,” observed Jan to his mother.
Lady Verner felt inclined to blame those of her household who had been left at home for Sibylla’s escapade: all of them—Lionel, Lucy Tempest, and the servants. They ought to have prevented it, she said; have kept her in by force, had needs been. But she blamed them wrongly. Lionel might have done so had he been present; there was no knowing whether he would so far have exerted his authority, but the scene that would inevitably have ensued might not have been less fatal in its consequences to Sibylla. Lucy answered, and with truth, that any remonstrance of hers to Sibylla would never have been listened to; and the servants excused themselves—it was not their place to presume to oppose Mr. Verner’s wife.
She lay on the sofa in her dressing-room, propped up by pillows; her face wan, her breathing laboured. Decima with her, calm and still; Catherine hovered near, to be useful, if necessary; Lady Verner was in her room within call; Lucy Tempest sat on the stairs. Lucy, remembering certain curious explosions, feared that her presence might not be acceptable to the invalid; but Lucy partook of the general restlessness, and sat down in her simple fashion on the stairs, listening for news from the sick-chamber. Neither she nor any one else in the house could have divested themselves of the prevailing excitement that day, or settled to calmness in the remotest degree. Lucy wished from her very heart that she could do anything to alleviate the sufferings of Mrs. Verner, or to soothe the general discomfort.
By and by, Jan entered, and came straight up the stairs. “Am I to walk over you, Miss Lucy?”
“There’s plenty of room to go by, Jan,” she answered, pulling her dress aside.
“Are you doing penance?” he asked, as he strode past her.
“It is so dull, remaining in the drawing-room by myself,” answered Lucy, apologetically. “Everybody is up-stairs.”
Jan went in to the sick-room, and Lucy sat on, in silence; her head bent down on her knees, as before. Presently Jan returned.
“Is she any better, Jan?”
“She’s no worse,” was Jan’s answer. “That’s something, when it comes to this stage. Where’s Lionel?”
“I do not know,” replied Lucy. “I think he went out. Jan,” she added, dropping her voice, “will she get well?”
“Get well!” echoed Jan in his plainness. “It’s not likely. She won’t be here four-and-twenty hours longer.”
“Oh, Jan!” uttered Lucy, painfully startled and distressed. “What a dreadful thing! And all because of her going out last night!”
“Not altogether,” answered Jan. “It has hastened it, no doubt; but the ending was not far off in any case.”
“If I could but save her!” murmured Lucy, in her unselfish sympathy. “I shall always be thinking that perhaps if I had spoken to her last night, instead of going out to find Mr. Verner, she might not have gone.”
“Look here,” said Jan. “You are not an angel yet, are you, Miss Lucy?”
“Not at all like one, I fear, Jan,” was her sad answer.
“Well, then, I can tell you, for your satisfaction, that an angel, coming down from heaven and endued with angel’s powers, wouldn’t have stopped her last night. She’d have gone in spite of you; and of all. Her mind was made up to it; and her telling Lionel in the morning that she’d give up going, provided he would promise to take her for a day’s pleasure to Heartburg, was only a ruse to throw the house off its guard.”
Jan passed down. Lucy sat on. As Jan was crossing the court-yard,—for he actually went out at the front door for once in his life, like he had done the day he carried the blanket and the black tea-kettle,—he encountered John Massingbird. Mr. John wore his usual free-and-easy costume, and had his short pipe in his mouth.
“I say,” began he, “what’s this tale about Mrs. Lionel? Folks are saying that she went off to Hautley’s last night, and danced herself to death.”
“That’s near enough,” replied Jan. “She would go; and she did; and she danced; and she finished it up by breaking a blood-vessel. And now she is dying.”
“What was Lionel about, to let her go?”
“Lionel knew nothing of it. She slipped off while he was out. Nobody was in the house but Lucy Tempest and one or two of the servants. She dressed herself on the quiet, sent for a fly, and went.”
“And danced,” assented Jan. “Her back and shoulders looked like a bag of bones. You might nearly have heard them rattle.”
“I always said there were moments when Sibylla’s mind was not right,” composedly observed John Massingbird. “Is there any hope?”
“None. There has not been hope, in point of fact, for a long while,” continued Jan. “As any body might have seen, except Sibylla. She has been obstinately blind to it. Although her father warned her, when he was here, that she could not live.”
John Massingbird smoked for some moments in silence. “She was always sickly,” he presently said. “Sickly in constitution; sickly in temper.”
Jan nodded. But what he might farther have said was stopped by the entrance of Lionel. He came in at the gate, looking jaded and tired. His mind was ill at ease, and he had not been to bed.
“I have been searching for you, Jan. Dr. West ought to be telegraphed to. Can you tell where he is?”
“No, I can’t,” replied Jan. “He was at Biarritz when he last wrote; but they were about to leave it. I expect to hear from him daily. If we did know where he is, Lionel, telegraphing would be of no use. He could not get here.”
“I should like him telegraphed to, if possible,” was Lionel’s answer.
“I’ll telegraph to Biarritz, if you like,” said Jan. “He is sure to have left it, though.”
“Do so,” returned Lionel. “Will you come in?” he added, to John Massingbird.
“No, thank you,” replied John Massingbird. “They’d not like my pipe. Tell Sibylla I hope she’ll get over it. I’ll come again by and by, and hear how she is.”
Lionel went indoors and passed up-stairs with a heavy footstep. Lucy started up from her place, but not before he had seen her in it.
“Why do you sit there, Lucy?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, blushing that he should have caught her there, though she had not cared for Jan’s doing so. “It is lonely down stairs to-day: here I can ask everybody who comes out of the room how she is. I wish I could cure her! I wish I could do anything for her!”
He laid his hand lightly on her head as he passed. “Thank you for all, my dear child!” and there was a strange tone of pain in his low voice as he spoke it.
Only Decima was in the room then, and she quitted it as Lionel entered. Treading softly across the carpet, he took his seat in a chair opposite Sibylla’s couch. She slept—for a great wonder—or appeared to sleep. The whole morning long—nay, the whole night long, her bright, restless eyes had been wide open: sleep as far from her as it could well be. It had seemed that her fractious temper kept the sleep away. But her eyes were closed now, and two dark purple rims enclosed them, terribly dark on the wan, white face. Suddenly the eyes unclosed with a start, as if her doze had been abruptly disturbed, though Lionel had been perfectly still. She looked at him for a minute or two in silence, and he, knowing it would be well that she should doze again, neither spoke nor moved.
“Lionel, am I dying?”
Quietly as the words were spoken, they struck on his ear with startling intensity. He rose then and pushed her hair from her damp brow with a fond hand, murmuring some general inquiry as to how she felt.
“Am I dying?” came again from the panting lips.
What was he to answer her? To say that she was dying, might send her into a paroxysm of terror; to deceive her in that awful hour by telling her she was not, went against every feeling of his heart.
“But I don’t want to die,” she urged, in some excitement, interpreting his silence to mean the worst. “Can’t Jan do anything for me? Can’t Dr. Hayes?”
“Dr. Hayes will be here soon,” observed Lionel, soothingly, if somewhat evasively. “He will come by the next train.”
She took his hand, held it between hers, and looked beseechingly up to his face. “I don’t want to leave you,” she whispered. “Oh Lionel! keep me here if you can! You know you are always kind to me. Sometimes I have reproached you that you were not, but it was not true. You have been ever kind, have you not?”
“I have ever striven to be so,” he answered, the tears glistening on his eyelashes.
“I don’t want to die. I want to get well and go about again, like I used to do when at Verner’s Pride. Now Sir Edmund Hautley is come home, that will be a good place to visit at. Lionel, I don’t want to die! Can’t you keep me in life?”
“If by sacrificing my own life I could save yours, Heaven knows how willingly I would do it,” he tenderly answered.
“Why should I die? Why should I die, more than others? I don’t think I am dying, Lionel,” she added, after a pause. “I shall get well yet.”
She stretched out her hand for some cooling drink that was near, and Lionel gave her a teaspoonful. He was giving her another, but she jerked her head away and spilled it.
“It’s not nice,” she said. So he put it down.
“I want to see Deborah,” she resumed.
“My dear, they are at Heartburg. I told you so this morning. They will be home no doubt by the next train. Jan has sent to them.”
“What should they do at Heartburg?” she fractiously asked.
“They went over yesterday to remain until to-day, I hear.”
Subsiding into silence, she lay quite still, save for her panting breath, holding Lionel’s hand as he bent over her. Some noise in the corridor outside attracted her attention, and she signed to him to open the door.
“Perhaps it is Dr. Hayes,” she murmured. “He is better than Jan.”
Better than Jan, insomuch as that he was rather given to assure his patients they would soon be strong enough to enjoy the al fresco delights of a gipsy party, even though he knew that they had not an hour’s prolonged life left in them. Not so Jan. Never did a more cheering doctor enter a sick-room than Jan, so long as there was the faintest shade of hope. But, when the closing scene was actually come, the spirit all but upon the wing, then Jan whispered of hope no more. He could not do it in his pure sincerity. Jan could be silent; but Jan could not tell a man, whose soul was hovering on the entrance of the next world, that he might yet recreate himself dancing hornpipes in this. Dr. Hayes would; it was in his creed to do so; and in that respect Dr. Hayes was different from Jan.
It was not Dr. Hayes. As Lionel opened the door, Lucy was passing it, and Thérèse was at the end of the corridor talking to Lady Verner. Lucy stopped to make her kind inquiries, her tone a low one, of how the invalid was then.
“Whose voice is that?” called out Mrs. Verner, her words scarcely reaching her husband’s ears.
“It is Lucy Tempest’s,” he said, closing the door and returning to her. “She was asking after you.”
“Tell her to come in.”
Lionel opened the door again, and beckoned to Lucy.
“Mrs. Verner is asking if you will come in and see her,” he said as she approached.
All the old grievances, the insults of Sibylla, blotted out from her gentle and forgiving mind, lost sight of in this great crisis, Lucy went up to the couch, and stood by the side of Sibylla. Lionel leaned over its back.
“I trust you are not feeling very ill, Mrs. Verner,” she said in a low, sweet tone, as she bent towards her and touched her hand. Touched it only; let her own fall lightly upon it; as if she did not feel sufficiently sure of Sibylla’s humour to presume to take it.
“No, I don’t think I’m better. I am so weak here.”
She touched her chest as she spoke. Lucy, perhaps somewhat at a loss what to say, stood in silence.
“I have been very cross to you sometimes, Lucy,” she resumed. “I meant nothing. I used to feel vexed with everybody, and said foolish things without meaning it. It was so cruel to be turned from Verner’s Pride, and it made me unhappy.”
“Indeed I do not think anything about it,” replied Lucy, the tears rising to her eyes in her forgiving tenderness. “I know how ill you must have felt. I used to feel that I should like to help you to bear the pain and the sorrow.”
Sibylla lay panting. Lucy remained as she was; Lionel also. Presently she, Sibylla, glanced at Lucy.
“I wish you’d kiss me.”
Lucy, unnerved by the words, bent closer to her, a shower of tears falling from her eyes on Sibylla’s face.
“If I could but save her life for you!” she murmured to Lionel, glancing up at him through her eyes as she rose from the embrace, and she saw that Lionel’s eyes were as wet as hers.
And now there was a commotion outside. Sounds, as of talking and wailing and crying, were heard. Little need to tell Lionel that they came from the Miss Wests: he recognised the voices; and Lucy glided forward to open the door.
Poor ladies! They were wont to say ever after that their absence had happened on purpose. Mortified at being ignored in Miss Hautley’s invitations, they had made a little plan to get out of Deerham. An old friend in Heartburg had repeatedly pressed them to dine there and remain for the night, and they determined to avail themselves of the invitation this very day of the fête at Deerham Hall. It would be pleasant to have to say to inquisitive friends, “We could not attend it, we were engaged to Heartburg.” Many a lady, of more account in the world than Deborah and Amilly West, has resorted to a less innocent ruse to conceal a slight offered. Jan had despatched Master Cheese that morning with the information of Sibylla’s illness; and here they were back again, full of grief, of consternation, and ready to show it in their demonstrative way.
Lionel hastened out to them, a Hush—sh! upon his tongue. He caught hold of them as they were hastening in.
“Yes; but not like this. Be still for her sake.”
Deborah looked at his pale face, reading it aright.
“Is she so ill as that?” she gasped. “Is there no hope?”
He only shook his head.
“Whatever you do, preserve a calm demeanour before her. We must keep her in tranquillity.”
“Master Cheese says she went to the ball—and danced,” said Deborah. “Mr. Verner, why did you allow it?”
“She did go,” he answered. “It was no fault of mine.”
Heavier footsteps up the stairs now. They were those of the physician, who had come by the train which had brought the Miss Wests. He, Dr. Hayes, entered the room, and they stole in after him; Lionel followed; Jan came bustling in, and made another; and Lucy remained outside.
Lady Verner saw Dr. Hayes when he was going away.
“There was no change,” he said, in answer to her inquiries; “Mrs. Verner was certainly in a very weak, sick state, and—there was no change.”
The Miss Wests removed their travelling garments, and took up their stations in the sick room—not to leave it again until the life should have departed from Sibylla. Lionel remained in it. Decima and Catherine went in and out, and Jan made frequent visits to the house.
“Tell papa it is the leaving Verner’s Pride that has killed me,” said Sibylla to Amilly with nearly her latest breath.
There was no bed for any of them that night, any more than there had been the previous one. A life was hovering in the balance. Lucy sat with Lady Verner, and the rest went in to them occasionally, taking news. Dawn was breaking when one went in for the last time.
It was Jan. He had come to break the tidings to his mother, and he sat himself down on the arm of the sofa—Jan fashion—while he did it.
The flickering lamp of life had burnt out at last.