Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Verner's Pride - Part 31
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER LXI. ACHING HEARTS.
If there be one day in the whole year more gladdening to the heart than all others, it is surely the first day of early spring. It may come and give us a glimpse almost in mid-winter; it may not come until winter ought to have been long past: but, appear when it will, it brings rejoicing with it. How many a heart, sinking under its bitter burthen of care, is reawakened to hope by that first spring day of brightness. It seems to promise that there shall be yet a change in the dreary lot; it whispers that trouble may not last; that sickness may be superseded by health; that this dark wintry world will be followed by heaven.
Such a day was smiling over Deerham. And they were only in the first days of February. The sun was warm, the fields were green, the sky was blue: all nature seemed to have put on her brightness. As Mrs. Duff stood at her door and exchanged greetings with sundry gossips passing by—an unusual number of whom were abroad—she gave it as her opinion that the charming weather had been vouchsafed as a special favour to Miss Decima Verner; for it was the wedding-day of that young lady and Sir Edmund Hautley.
Sir Edmund would fain have been married immediately after his return. Perhaps Decima would also. But Lady Verner, always given to study the proprieties of life, considered that it would be more seemly to allow a few months to roll on first after the death of her son’s wife. So the autumn and part of the winter were allowed to go by; and in this, the first week of February, they were united; being favoured with weather that might have cheated them into a belief that it was May-day.
How anxious Deerham was to get a sight of her, as the carriages conveying the party to church drove to and fro. Lionel gave her away, and her bridesmaids were Lady Mary Elmsley and Lucy Tempest. The story of the long engagement between her and Edmund Hautley had electrified Deerham; and some began to wish that they had not called her an old maid quite so prematurely. Should it unfortunately have reached her ears, it might tend to place them in the black books of the future Lady Hautley. Lady Verner was rather against Jan’s going to church. Lady Verner’s private opinion was—indeed, it may be said her proclaimed opinion as well as her private one—that Jan would be no ornament to a wedding party. But Decima had already got Jan’s promise to be present: which Jan had given conditionally—that no patients required him at the time. But Jan’s patients proved themselves considerate that day; and Jan appeared not only at the church, but at the breakfast.
At the dinner also, in the evening. Sir Edmund and Lady Hautley had left then; but those who remained of course wanted some dinner: and had it. It was a small party, more social than formal. Mr. and Mrs. Bitterworth, Lord Garle and his sister, Miss Hautley, and John Massingbird. Miss Hautley was again staying temporarily at Deerham Hall, but she would leave it on the following day. John Massingbird was invited at the special request of Lionel. Perhaps John was less of an ornament to a social party than even Jan, but Lionel had been anxious that no slight should be placed upon him. It would have been a slight for the owner of Verner’s Pride to be left out at Decima Verner’s wedding. Lady Verner held out a little while; she did not like John Massingbird; never had liked any of the Massingbirds; but Lionel carried his point. John Massingbird showed himself presentable that day, and had left his pipe at home.
In one point Mr. Massingbird proved himself as little given to ceremony as Jan could be. The dinner hour, he had been told, was seven o’clock; and he arrived shortly after six. Lucy Tempest and Mary Elmsley were in the drawing-room. Fair, graceful girls both of them, in their floating white bridesmaids’ robes, which they would wear for the day: Lucy always serene and quiet; Mary, merry-hearted, gay-natured. Mary was to stay with them for some days. They looked somewhat scared at the early entrance of John Massingbird. Curious tales had gone about Deerham of John’s wild habits at Verner’s Pride, and, it may be, they felt half afraid of him. Lucy whispered to the servant to find Mr. Verner and tell him. Lady Verner had gone to her room to make ready for dinner.
“I say, young ladies, is it six or seven o’clock that we are to dine?” he began. “I could not remember.”
“Seven,” replied Lucy.
“I am too soon by an hour, then,” returned he, sitting down in front of the fire. “How are you by this time, Lionel?”
Lionel shook hands with him as he came in. “Never mind; we are glad to see you,” he said, in answer to a half apology from John Massingbird about the arriving early. “I can show you those calculations now, if you like.”
“Calculations be hanged!” returned John. “When a fellow comes out to dinner, he does not want to be met with ‘calculations.’ What else, Lionel?”
Lionel Verner laughed. They were certain calculations drawn out by himself, connected with unavoidable work to be commenced on the Verner Pride estate. For the last month he had been vainly seeking an opportunity of going over them with John Massingbird: that gentleman, who hated details as much as Master Cheese hated work, continually contrived to put it off.
“Have you given yourself the pleasure of making them out in duplicate, that you propose to show them here?” asked he, some irony in his tone. “I thought they were in the study at Verner’s Pride.”
“I brought them home a day or two ago,” replied Lionel. “Some alteration was required, and I thought I would do it quietly here.”
“You are a rare—I suppose if I say ‘steward’ I shall offend your pride, Lionel? ‘Bailiff’ would be worse. If real stewards were as faithful and indefatigable as you, landlords might get on better than they do. You can’t think how he plagues me with his business details, Miss Tempest.”
“I can,” said Lady Mary, freely. “I think he is terribly conscientious.”
“All the more so, that he is not going to be a steward long,” answered Lionel, in a tone through which ran a serious meaning, light as it was. “The time is approaching when I shall render up an account of my stewardship, so far as Verner’s Pride is concerned.”
“What do you mean by that?” cried John Massingbird.
“I’ll tell you to-morrow,” answered Lionel.
“I’d like to know now, if it’s all the same to you, sir,” was John’s answer. “You are not going to give up the management of Verner’s Pride.”
“Yes, I am,” replied Lionel. “I should have given it up when my wife died, but that Decima—Decima wished me to remain in Deerham until her marriage,” he concluded, after some perceptible hesitation.
“What has Deerham done to you, that you want to quit it?” asked John Massingbird.
“I would have left Deerham years ago, had it been practicable,” was the remark of Lionel.
“I ask you why?”
“Why? Do you think Deerham and its reminiscences can be so pleasant to me, that I should care to stop in it, unless compelled?”
“Bother reminiscences!” rejoined Mr. Massingbird. “I conclude you make believe to allude to the ups and downs you have had in regard to Verner’s Pride. That’s not the cause, Lionel Verner—if you do want to go away. You have had time to get over that. Perhaps some lady is in the way? Some cross-grained disappointment in that line? Have you been refusing to marry him, Lady Mary?”
Lady Mary threw her laughing blue eyes full in the face of the questioner. “He never asked me, Mr. Massingbird.”
“No!” said John.
“No,” said she, the lips laughing now, as well as the eyes. “In the old days—I declare I don’t mind letting out the secret—in the old days, before he was married at all, mamma and Lady Verner contrived to let me know by indirect hints, that Lionel Verner might be expected to—to—solicit the honour of my becoming his wife. How I laughed behind their backs! It would have been time enough to turn rebellious when the offer came—which I was quite sure never would come—to make them and him a low curtsey, and say, ‘You are very kind, but I must decline the honour.’ Did you get any teasings on your side, Lionel?” asked she, frankly.
A half-smile flitted over Lionel’s lips. He did not speak.
“No,” added Lady Mary, her joking tone turning to seriousness, her blue eyes to earnestness, “I and Lionel have ever been good friends, fond of each other, I believe, in a sober kind of way: but—any closer relationship we should both have run away from as wide as the two poles. I can answer for myself: and I think I can for him.”
“I see,” said John Massingbird. “To be husband and wife would go against the grain: you’d rather be brother and sister.”
What there could be in the remark to disturb the perfect equanimity of Mary Elmsley, she best knew. Certain it was, that her face turned of a fiery red, and it seemed that she did not know where to look. She spoke rapid words, as if to cover her confusion.
“So you perceive, Mr. Massingbird, that I have nothing to do with Mr. Verner’s plans and projects; with his stopping at Deerham or going away from it. I should not think any lady has. You are not going, are you?” she asked, turning to Lionel.
“Yes, I shall go, Mary,” he answered. “As soon as Mr. Massingbird can find somebody to replace me—”
“Mr. Massingbird’s not going to find anybody to replace you,” burst forth John. “I declare, Lionel, if you do go, I’ll take on Roy, just to spite you and your old tenants. By-the-way, though, talking of Roy, who do you think has come back to Deerham?” he broke off, rather less vehemently.
“How can I guess?” asked Lionel. “Some of the Mormons, perhaps.”
“No. Luke Roy. He arrived this afternoon.”
“Has he, indeed!” replied Lionel, a shade of sadness in his tone more than surprise, for somehow the name of Luke, coupled with his return, brought back all too vividly the recollection of his departure, and the tragic end of Rachel Frost which had followed so close upon it.
“I have not seen him,” rejoined Mr. Massingbird. “I met Mrs. Roy as I came on here, and she told me. She was scuttering along with some muffins in her hand—to regale him on, I suppose.”
“How glad she must be!” exclaimed Lucy.
“Rather sorry, I thought,” returned John. “She looked very quaky and shivery. I tell you what, Lionel,” he continued, turning to him, “your dinner will not be ready this three-quarters of an hour yet. I’ll just go as far as old Roy’s, and have a word with Luke. I have got a top-coat in the hall.”
He went out without ceremony. Lionel walked with him to the door. It was a fine starlight evening. When he, Lionel, returned, Lucy was alone. Mary Elmsley had left the room.
Lucy had quitted the chair of state she had been sitting in, and was in her favourite place on a low stool on the hearthrug. She was more kneeling than sitting. The fire-light played on her sweet face, so young and girlish still in its outlines, on her pretty hands clasped on her knees, on her bracelets which glittered with pearls, on the pearls that rested on her neck. Lionel stood on the other side the hearthrug, leaning as usual on the mantelpiece.
At least five minutes passed in silence. And then Lucy raised her eyes to his.
“Was it a joke, what you said to John Massingbird—about leaving Deerham?”
“It was sober earnest, Lucy. I shall go as soon as I possibly can, now.”
“But why?” she presently asked.
“I should have left, as you heard me say, after Mrs. Verner’s death, but for one or two considerations. Decima very much wished me to remain until her marriage; and—I did not see my way particularly clear to embark in a new course of life. I do not yet.”
“Why should you go?” asked Lucy.
“Because I—because it is expedient that I should, for many reasons,” he answered.
“You do not like to remain subservient to John Massingbird?”
“It is not that. I have got over that. My prospects have been so utterly blighted, Lucy, that I think some of the old pride of the Verner race has gone out of me. I do not see a chance of getting anything to do, half as good as this stewardship—as he but now called it—under John Massingbird. But I shall try at it.”
“What shall you try, do you think?”
“I cannot tell. I should like to get something abroad; I should like to go to India. I do not suppose I have any real chance of getting an appointment there; but stopping in Deerham will certainly not bring it to me. That, or anything else.”
Lucy’s lips had parted. “You will not think of going to India now!” she breathlessly exclaimed.
“Indeed I do think of it, Lucy.”
“So far off as that!”
The words were uttered with a strange sound of pain. Lionel passed his hand over his brow, the action betokening pain quite as great as Lucy’s tone. Lucy rose from her seat and stood near him, her thoughtful face upturned.
“What is left for me in England?” he resumed. “What am I here? A man without home, fortune, hope. I have worse than no prospects. The ceremony at which we have been assisting this day, seems to have brought the bare facts more palpably before me in all their naked truth. Other men can have a home, can form social ties to bless it. I cannot.”
“But why?” asked Lucy, her lips trembling.
“Why! Can you ask it, Lucy? There are moments—and they are all too frequent—when a fond vision comes over me of what my future might be; of the new ties I might form, and find the happiness in that—that I did not find in the last. The vision, I say, comes all too frequently for my peace of mind, when I realise the fact that it can never be fulfilled.”
Lucy stood, her hands tightly clasped before her, a world of sadness in her fair young face. One less entirely single-hearted, less true than Lucy Tempest, might have professed to ignore the drift of his words. Had Lucy, since Mrs. Verner’s death, cast a thought to the possibility of certain happy relations arising between her and Lionel—those social ties he now spoke of? No, not intentionally. If any such dreams did lurk in her heart unbidden, there she had let them lie, in entire abeyance. Lionel Verner had never spoken a word to her, or dropped a hint that he contemplated such: his intercourse with her had been free and open, just as it was with Decima. She was quite content: to be with him, to see him daily, was enough of happiness for her, without looking to the future.
“The further I get away from England, the better,” he resumed. “India, from old associations, naturally suggests itself, but I care not whither I go. You threw out a suggestion once, Lucy, that Colonel Tempest might be able to help me to something there, by which I may get a living. Should I have found no success in London by the time he arrives, it is my intention to ask him the favour. He will be home in a few weeks, now.”
“And you talk of leaving Deerham immediately!” cried Lucy. “Where’s the necessity? You should wait until he comes.”
“I have waited too long, as it is. Deerham will be glad to get rid of me. It may hold a jubilee the day it hears I have shipped myself off for India. I wonder if I shall ever come back? Probably not. I and old friends may never meet again on this side heaven.”
He had been affecting to speak lightly, jokingly, toying at the same time with some trifle on the mantlepiece. But as he turned his eyes on Lucy at the conclusion of his sentence, he saw that the tears were falling on her cheeks. The words, the ideas they conjured up, had jarred painfully on every fibre of her heart. Lionel’s light mood was gone.
“Lucy,” he whispered, bending to her, his tone changing to one of passionate earnestness, “I dare not stay here longer. There are moments when I am tempted to forget my position, to forget honour, and speak words that—that—I ought not to speak. Even now, as I look down upon you, my heart is throbbing, my veins are tingling; but I must not touch you with my finger, or tell you of my impassioned love. All I can do is to carry it away with me, and battle with it alone.”
Her face had grown white with emotion. She raised her wet eyes yearningly to his: but she still spoke the simple truth, unvarnished, the great agony that was lying at her heart.
“How shall I live on, with you away? It will be more lonely than I can bear.”
“Don’t, child!” he said, in a wailing tone of entreaty. “The temptation from my own heart is all too present. Don’t you tempt me. Strong man though I am, there are things that I cannot bear.”
He leaned on the mantlepiece, shading his face with his hand. Lucy stood in silence, striving to suppress her emotion from breaking forth.
“In the old days—very long ago, they seem now, to look back upon—I had the opportunity of assuring my life’s happiness,” he continued, in a low, steady tone. “I did not do it; I let it slip from me, foolishly, wilfully; of my own free act. But, Lucy—believe me or not as you like—I loved the one I rejected, more than the one I took. Before the sound of my marriage bells had yet rung out on my ears, the terrible conviction was within me that I loved that other better than all created things. You may judge, then, what my punishment has been.”
She raised her eyes to his face, but he did not see them, did not look at her. He continued:
“It was the one great mistake of my life: made by myself alone. I cannot plead the excuse which so many are able to plead for life’s mistakes, that I was drawn into it. I made it deliberately, as may be said; of my own free will. It is but just, therefore, that I should expiate it. How I have suffered in the expiation, Heaven alone knows. It is true that I bound myself in a moment of delirium, of passion, giving myself no time for thought: but I have never looked upon that fact as an excuse; for, a man who has come to the years I had, should hold his feelings under his own control. Yes: I missed that opportunity, and the chance went by for life.”
“For life?” repeated Lucy, with streaming eyes. It was too terribly real a moment for any attempt at concealment. A little reticence, in her maiden modesty; but of concealment, none.
“I am a poor man now, Lucy!” he exclaimed: “worse than without prospects, if you knew all. And I do not know why you should not know all,” he added, after a pause: “I am in debt. Such a man cannot marry.”
The words were spoken quietly, temperately; their tone proving how hopeless could be any appeal against them, whether from him, from her, or from without. It was perfectly true: Lionel Verner’s position placed him beyond the reach of social ties.
Little more was said. It was a topic which Lucy could not urge or gainsay; and Lionel did not see fit to continue it: he may have felt that it was dangerous ground, even for the man of honour that he strove to be. He held out his hand to Lucy.
“Will you forgive me?” he softly whispered.
Her sobs choked her. She strove to speak as she crept closer to him, and put out her hands in answer; but the words would not come: she lifted her face to glance at his.
“Not a night passes but I pray God to forgive me,” he whispered, his voice trembling with emotion, as he pressed her hands between his, “to forgive the sorrow I have brought upon you. Oh, Lucy! forgive—forgive me!”
“Yes, yes,” was all her answer, her sobs impeding her utterance, her tears blinding her. Lionel kept the hands strained to him; he looked down on the upturned face, and read its love there; he kept his own bent, with its mingled expression of tenderness and pain: but he did not take from it a single caress. What right had he? Verily, if he had not shown control over himself once in his life, he was showing it now.
He released one of his hands and laid it gently upon her head for a minute, his lips moving silently. Then he let her go: it was over.
She sat down on the low stool again on the opposite side the hearth, and buried her face and her anguish. Lionel buried his face, his elbow on the mantelpiece, his hand uplifted: he never looked at her again, nor spoke; she never raised her head; and when the company began to arrive, and came in, the silence was still unbroken.
And as they talked and laughed that night, fulfilling the usages of society amidst the guests, how little did any one present suspect the scene which had taken place but a short while before. How many of the smiling faces we meet in society cover aching hearts!
CHAPTER LXII. MASTER CHEESE BLOWN UP.
There were other houses in Deerham, that night, not quite so full of sociability as was Lady Verner’s. For one, may be instanced that of the Miss Wests. They sat at the table in the general sitting-room, hard at work, the lamp between them. Miss Deborah was “turning” a table-cloth; Miss Amilly was darning sundry holes in a pillow-case. Their stock of household linen was in great need of being replaced by new; but, not having the requisite money to spare, they were doing their best to renovate the old.
A slight—they could not help feeling it as such—had been put upon them that day, in not having been invited to Decima Verner’s wedding. The sisters-in-law of Lionel Verner, connected closely with Jan, they had expected the invitation. But it had not come. Lionel had pressed his mother to give it; Jan, in his straightforward way, when he had found it was not forthcoming, said, “Why don’t you invite them? They’d do nobody any harm.” Lady Verner, however, had positively declined: the Wests had never been acquaintances of hers, she said. They felt the slight, poor ladies. But they felt it quite humbly and meekly; not complaining; not venturing even to say to each other that they might have been asked. They only sat a little more silent than usual over their work that evening, doing more, and talking less.
The servant came in with the supper-tray, and laid it on the table.”
“Is the cold pork to come in?” asked she. “I have not brought it. I thought, perhaps, you’d not care to have it in to-night, ma’am, as Mr. Jan’s out.”
Miss Deborah cast her eyes on the tray. There was a handsome piece of cheese, and a large glass of fresh celery. A rapid calculation passed through her mind that the cold pork, if not cut for supper, would make a dinner the following day, with an apple or a jam pudding.
“No, Martha, this will do for to-night,” she answered. “Call Master Cheese, and then draw the ale.”
“It’s a wonder he waits to be called,” was Martha’s comment, as she went out. “He is generally in afore the tray, whatever the meals may be, he is.”
She went out at the side door, and entered the surgery. Nobody was in it except the surgery-boy. The boy was asleep with his head and arms on the counter, and the gas flared away over him. A hissing and fizzing from Jan’s room, like the sounds Lucy Tempest heard when she invaded the surgery the night of the ball at Deerham Hall, saluted Martha’s ears. She went round the counter, tried the door, found it fastened, and shook the handle.
“Who’s there?” called out Master Cheese from the other side.
“It’s me,” said Martha. “Supper’s ready.”
“Very well. I’ll be in directly,” responded Master Cheese.
“I say!” called out Martha, wrathfully, rattling the handle again, “if you are making a mess of that room, like you do sometimes, I won’t have it. I’ll complain to Mr. Jan. There! Messing the floor and places with your powder and stuff! It would take two servants to clear up after you.”
“You go to Bath,” was the satisfactory recommendation of Master Cheese.
Martha called out another wrathful warning, and withdrew. Master Cheese came forth, locked the door, took out the key, went in-doors and sat down to supper.
Sat down in angry consternation. He threw his eager glances to every point of the table, and could not see upon it what he was longing to see—what he had been expecting all the evening to see—for the terrible event of its not being there had never so much as crossed his imagination. The dinner had consisted of a loin of pork with the crackling on, and apple-sauce. A dish so beloved by Master Cheese, that he never thought of it without a watering of the mouth. It had been nothing like half eaten at dinner, neither the pork nor the sauce. Jan was at the wedding-breakfast, and the Miss Wests, in Master Cheese’s estimation, ate like two sparrows: of course he had looked to be regaled with it at supper. Miss West cut him a large piece of cheese, and Miss Amilly handed him the glass, of celery.
Now Master Cheese had no great liking for that vulgar edible which bore his name, and which used to form the staple of so many good old-fashioned suppers. To cheese in the abstract he could certainly have borne no forcible objection, since he was wont to steal into the larder, between breakfast and dinner, and help himself—as Martha would grumblingly complain—to “pounds” of it. The state of the case was just this: the young gentleman liked cheese well enough when he could get nothing better. Cheese, however, as a substitute for cold loin of pork with “crackling” and apple-sauce, was hardly to be borne, and Master Cheese sat in dumbfounded dismay, heaving great sighs and casting his eyes upon his plate.
“I feel quite faint,” cried he.
“What makes you feel faint?” asked Miss Deb.
“Well, I suppose it is for want of my supper,” he returned. “Is—is there no meat to-night, Miss Deb?”
“Not any,” she answered, decisively. She had the pleasure of knowing Master Cheese well.
Master Cheese paused.
“There was nearly the whole joint left at dinner,” said he, in a tone of remonstrance.
“There was a good deal of it left, and that’s the reason it’s not coming in,” replied Miss Deb. “It will be sufficient for to-morrow’s dinner with a pudding. I’m sure it will not hurt you to sup upon cheese for one night.”
With all his propensity for bonne chère, Master Cheese was really of a modest nature, and would not go the length of demanding luxuries, if denied them by Miss Deb. He was fain to content himself with the cheese and celery, eating so much of it that it may be a question whether the withholding of the cold pork had been a gain in the way of economy.
Laying down his knife at length, he put back his chair to return to the surgery. Generally he was not in so much haste; he liked to wait until the things were removed, even to the cloth, lest by a speedy departure he might miss some nice little dainty or other, coming in at the tail of the repast. It is true such impromptu arrivals were not common at Miss West’s table, but Master Cheese liked to be on the sure side.
“You are in a hurry,” remarked Miss Amilly, surprised at the unwonted withdrawal.
“Jan’s out,” returned Master Cheese. “Folks may be coming in to the surgery.”
“I wonder if Mr. Jan will be late to-night?” cried Miss Deb.
“Of course he will,” confidently replied Master Cheese. “Who ever heard of a wedding-party breaking up before morning?”
For this reason, probably, Master Cheese returned to the surgery, prepared to “make a night of it.” Not altogether in the general acceptation of that term, but at his chemical experiments. It was most rare that he could make sure of Jan’s absence for any length of time. When out in pursuance of his professional duties, Jan might be returning at any period; in five minutes or in five hours. There was no knowing: and Master Cheese dared not get his chemical apparatus about, in the uncertainty, Jan having so positively forbidden his recreations in the science. For this night, however, he thought he was safe. Master Cheese’s ideas of a wedding festival consisted of unlimited feasting. He could not have left such a board, if bidden to one, until morning light, and he judged others by himself.
Jan’s bedroom was strewed with vessels of various sorts and sizes from one end of it to the other. In the old days, Dr. West had been a considerable dabbler in experimental chemistry himself. Jan also understood something of it. Master Cheese did not see why he should not. A roaring fire burnt in Jan’s grate, and the young gentleman stood before it for a few minutes previous to resuming his researches, giving his back a roast and indulging bitter reminiscences touching his deficient supper.
“She’s getting downright mean, is that old Deb!” grumbled he. “Especially if Jan happens to be out. Wasn’t it different in West’s time! He knew what was good, he did. Catch her daring to put bread and cheese on the table for supper then. I shall be quite exhausted before the night’s over. Bob!”
Bob, his head still on the counter, partially woke up at the call. Sufficiently so to return a half sound by way of response.
“Bob!” roared Master Cheese again. “Can’t you hear?”
Bob, his eyes blinking and winking, came in, in answer. That is, as far as he could get in, for the litter lying about.
“Bring in the jar of tamarinds.”
“The jar of tamarinds!” repeated Bob. “In here?”
“Yes, in here,” said Master Cheese. “Now, you needn’t stare. All you have got to do is to obey orders.”
Bob disappeared, and presently returned, lugging in a big porcelain jar. He was ordered to “take out the bung, and leave it open.” He did so, setting it in a convenient place on the floor, near Master Cheese, and giving his opinion gratuitously of the condition of the room.
“Won’t there be a row when Mr. Jan comes in and finds it like this!”
“The things will be put away long before he comes,” responded Master Cheese. “Mind your own business. And, look here! if anybody comes bothering, Mr. Jan’s out, and Mr. Cheese is out, and they can’t be seen till the morning. Unless it’s some desperate case,” added Master Cheese, somewhat qualifying the instructions. “A fellow dying, or anything of that.”
Bob withdrew, to fall asleep in the surgery as before, his head and arms on the counter; and Master Cheese recommenced his studies. Solacing himself first of all with a few mouthfuls of tamarinds, as he intended to do throughout his labours, he plunged his hands into a mass of incongruous substances—nitre, chlorate of potass, and sulphur being amongst them.
The Miss Wests, meanwhile, had got to their work after supper, and sewed until the clock struck ten. Then they put it away, and drew round the fire for a chat, their feet on the fender. A very short while, and they were surprised by the entrance of Jan.
“My goodness!” exclaimed Miss Amilly. “It’s never you yet, Mr. Jan!”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” returned Jan, drawing forward a chair, and sitting down by them. “Did you fancy I was going to sleep there?”
“Master Cheese thought you would keep it up until morning.”
“Oh! did he? Is he gone to bed?”
“He is in the surgery,” replied Miss Amilly. “Mr. Jan, you have told us nothing yet about the wedding in the morning.”
“It went off,” answered Jan.
“But the details? How did the ladies look?”
“They looked as usual, for all I saw,” replied Jan.
“What did they wear?”
“Wear? Gowns, I suppose.”
“Oh, Mr. Jan! Surely you saw better than that! Can’t you tell what sort of gowns?”
Jan really could not. It may be questioned whether he could have told a petticoat from a gown. Miss Amilly was waiting with breathless interest, her lips apart.
“Some were in white, and some were in colours, I think,” hazarded Jan, trying to be correct in his goodnature. “Decima was in a veil.”
“Of course she was,” acquiesced Miss Amilly with emphasis. “Did the bridesmaids—”
What pertinent question relating to the bridesmaids Miss Amilly was about to put, never was known. A fearful sound interrupted it. A sound nearly impossible to describe. Was it a crash of thunder? Had an engine from the distant railway taken up its station outside their house, and gone off with a bang? Or had the surgery blown up? The room they were in shook, the windows rattled, the Miss Wests screamed with real terror, and Jan started from his seat.
“It can’t be an explosion of gas!” he muttered.
Bursting out of the room, he nearly knocked down Martha, who was bursting into it. Instinct, or perhaps sound, took Jan to the surgery, and they all followed in his wake. Bob, the image of terrified consternation, stood in the midst of a débris of glass, his mouth open, and his hair standing on end. The glass bottles and jars of the establishment had flown from their shelves, causing the unhappy Bob to believe that the world had come to an end.
But what was the débris there, compared to the débris in the next room, Jan’s. The window was out, the furniture was split, the various chemical apparatus had been shivered into a hundred pieces, the tamarind jar was in two, and Master Cheese was extended on the floor on his back, his hands scorched, his eyebrows singed off, his face black, and the end of his nose burning.
“Oh! that’s it, is it?” said Jan, when his eyes took in the state of things. “I knew it would come to it.”
“He have been and blowed hisself up,” remarked Bob, who had stolen in after them.
“Is it the gas?” sobbed Miss Amilly, hardly able to speak for terror.
“No, it’s not the gas,” returned Jan, examining the débris more closely. “It’s one of that gentleman’s chemical experiments.”
Deborah West was bending over the prostrate form in alarm. “He surely can’t be dead!” she shivered.
“Not he,” said Jan. “Come, get up,” he added, taking Master Cheese by the arm to assist him.
He was placed in a chair, and there he sat, coming to, and emitting sundry dismal groans.
“I told you what you’d bring it to, if you persisted in attempting experiments that you know nothing about,” was Jan’s reprimand, delivered in a sharp tone. “A pretty state of things, this is.”
Master Cheese groaned again.
“Are you much hurt?” asked Miss Deb, in a sympathising accent.
“Oh-o-o-o-o-o-h!” replied Master Cheese.
“Is there anything we can get for you?” resumed Miss Deb.
“Oh-o-o-o-o-o-h!” repeated Master Cheese. “A glass of wine might revive me.”
“Get up,” said Jan, “and let’s see if you can walk. He’s not hurt, Miss Deb.”
Master Cheese, yielding to the peremptory movement of Jan’s arm, had no resource but to show them that he could walk. He had taken a step or two as dolefully as it was possible for him to do, keeping his eyes shut, and stretching out his hands before him after the manner of the blind, when an interruption came from Miss Amilly.
“What can this be, lying here?”
She was bending her head near the old bureau, which had been rent in the explosion, her eyes fixed upon some large letter or paper on the floor, They crowded round at the words, Jan picked it up, and found it to be a folded parchment, bearing a great seal.
“Halloa!” exclaimed Jan.
On the outside was written “Codicil to the will of Stephen Verner.”
“What is it?” exclaimed Miss Deborah, and even Master Cheese contrived to get his eyes open to look.
“It is the lost codicil,” replied Jan. “It must have been in that bureau. How did it get there?”
How indeed? There ensued a pause.
“It must have been placed there”—Jan was beginning, and then he stopped himself. He would not, before those ladies, say—“by Dr. West.”
But to Jan it was now perfectly clear. That old hunting for the “prescription” which had puzzled him at the time, was explained now. There was the “prescription”—the codicil! Dr. West had had it in his hand when disturbed in that room by a stranger: he had flung it back in the bureau in his hurry, pushed it back: by some unexplainable means he must have pushed it too far, out of sight. And there it had lain until now, intact and undiscovered.
The hearts of the Miss Wests were turning to sickness, their countenances to pallor. That it could be no other than their father who had stolen the codicil from Stephen Verner’s dying chamber, was present to their conviction. His motive could only have been to prevent Verner’s Pride passing to Lionel, over his daughter and her husband. What did he think of his work when the news came of Frederick’s death? What did he think of it when John Massingbird returned in person? What did he think of it when he read Sibylla’s dying message, written to him by Amilly—“Tell papa it is the leaving Verner’s Pride that has killed me”?
“I shall take possession of this,” said Jan Verner.
The first thing on the following morning the codicil was handed over to Mr. Matiss. He immediately recognised it by its appearance. But it would be opened officially later, in the presence of John Massingbird. Jan betook himself to Verner’s Pride to carry the news, and found Mr. Massingbird astride on a pillar of the terrace steps, smoking away with gusto. The day was warm and sunshiny as the previous one had been.
“What, is it you?” cried he, when Jan came in sight. “You are up here betimes. Anybody dying, this way?”
“Not this morning,” replied Jan. “I say, Massingbird, there’s ill news in the wind for you.”
“What’s that?” composedly asked John, tilting some ashes out of his pipe.
“That codicil has come to light.”
John puffed on vigorously, staring at Jan, but never speaking.
“The thief must have been old West,” went on Jan. “Only think! it has been hidden all this while in that bureau of his, in my bed-room.”
“What has unhidden it?” demanded Mr. Massingbird, in a half-satirical tone, as if he doubted the truth of the information.
“An explosion did that. Cheese got meddling with dangerous substances, and there was a blow-up. The bureau was thrown down and broken, and the codicil was dislodged. To talk of it, it sounds like an old stage trick.”
“Did Cheese blow himself up?” asked John Massingbird.
“Yes. But he came down again. He is in bed with burnt hands and a scorched face. If I had told him once to let that dangerous play alone—dangerous in his hands—I had told him ten times.”
“Where’s the codicil?” inquired Mr. Massingbird, smoking away.
“In Matiss’s charge. You’d like to be present, I suppose, at the time of its being opened?”
“I can take your word,” returned John Massingbird. “This does not surprise me. I have always had an impression that the codicil would turn up.”
“It is more than I have have had,” dissented Jan.
As if by common consent, they spoke no further on the subject of the abstraction and its guilty instrument. It was a pleasant theme to neither. John Massingbird, little refinement of feeling that he possessed, could not forget that Dr. West was his mother’s brother: or Jan, that he was his late master, his present partner—that he was connected with him in the eyes of Deerham. Before they had spoken much longer, they were joined by Lionel.
“I shall give you no trouble, old fellow,” was John Massingbird’s salutation. “You gave me none.”
“Thank you,” answered Lionel. Though what precise trouble it lay in John Massingbird’s power to give him, he did not see, considering that things were now so plain.
“You’ll accord me house-room for a bit longer, though, won’t you?”
“I will accord it you as long as you like,” replied Lionel, in the warmth of his heart.
“You know I would have had you stop on here all along,” remarked Mr. Massingbird; “but the bar to it was Sibylla. I am not sorry the thing’s found. I am growing tired of my life here. It has come into my mind at times lately to think whether I should not give up to you, Lionel, and be off over the seas again. It’s tame work, this, to one who has roughed it at the diggings.”
“You’d not have done it,” observed Jan, alluding to the giving up.
“Perhaps not,” said John Massingbird; “but I have owed a debt to Lionel for a long while. I say, old chap, didn’t you think I clapped on a good sum for your trouble when I offered you the management of Verner’s Pride?”
“I did,” answered Lionel.
“Ay! I was in your debt; am in it still. Careless as I am, I thought of it now and then.”
“I do not understand you,” said Lionel. “In what way are you in my debt?”
“Let it go for now,” returned John. “I may tell you some time perhaps. When shall you take up your abode here?”
Lionel smiled. “I will not invade you without warning. You and I will take counsel together, John, and discuss plans and expediencies.”
“I suppose, you’ll be for setting about your improvements now?”
“Yes,” answered Lionel, his tone changing to one of deep seriousness, not to say reverence; “without loss of time.”
“I told you they could wait until you came into the estate. It has not been long first, you see.”
“No; but I never looked for it,” said Lionel.
“Ah! Things turn up that we don’t look for,” concluded John Massingbird, smoking on as serenely as though he had come into an estate, instead of having lost one. “There’ll be bonfires all over the place to-night, Lionel. A left-handed compliment to me. Here comes Luke Roy. I told him to be here this morning. What nuts this will be for old Roy to crack! He has been fit to stick me ever since I refused him the management of Verner’s Pride.”