Rodney Stone/Chapter V
Now that I was in my seventeenth year, and had already some need for a razor, I had begun to weary of the narrow life of the village, and to long to see something of the great world beyond. The craving was all the stronger because I durst not speak openly about it, for the least hint of it brought the tears into my mother's eyes. But now there was the less reason that I should stay at home, since my father was at her side, and so my mind was all filled by this prospect of my uncle's visit, and of the chance that he might set my feet moving at last upon the road of life.
As you may think, it was towards my father's profession that my thoughts and my hopes turned, for from my childhood I have never seen the heave of the sea or tasted the salt upon my lips without feeling the blood of five generations of seamen thrill within my veins. And think of the challenge which was ever waving in those days before the eyes of a coast-living lad! I had but to walk up to Wolstonbury in the war time to see the sails of the French chasse-marees and privateers. Again and again I have heard the roar of the guns coming from far out over the waters. Seamen would tell us how they had left London and been engaged ere nightfall, or sailed out of Portsmouth and been yard-arm to yard-arm before they had lost sight of St. Helen's light. It was this imminence of the danger which warmed our hearts to our sailors, and made us talk, round the winter fires, of our little Nelson, and Cuddie Collingwood, and Johnnie Jarvis, and the rest of them, not as being great High Admirals with titles and dignities, but as good friends whom we loved and honoured above all others. What boy was there through the length and breadth of Britain who did not long to be out with them under the red-cross flag?
But now that peace had come, and the fleets which had swept the Channel and the Mediterranean were lying dismantled in our harbours, there was less to draw one's fancy seawards. It was London now of which I thought by day and brooded by night: the huge city, the home of the wise and the great, from which came this constant stream of carriages, and those crowds of dusty people who were for ever flashing past our window-pane. It was this one side of life which first presented itself to me, and so, as a boy, I used to picture the City as a gigantic stable with a huge huddle of coaches, which were for ever streaming off down the country roads. But, then, Champion Harrison told me how the fighting-men lived there, and my father how the heads of the Navy lived there, and my mother how her brother and his grand friends were there, until at last I was consumed with impatience to see this marvellous heart of England. This coming of my uncle, then, was the breaking of light through the darkness, though I hardly dared to hope that he would take me with him into those high circles in which he lived. My mother, however, had such confidence either in his good nature or in her own powers of persuasion, that she already began to make furtive preparations for my departure.
But if the narrowness of the village life chafed my easy spirit, it was a torture to the keen and ardent mind of Boy Jim. It was but a few days after the coming of my uncle's letter that we walked over the Downs together, and I had a peep of the bitterness of his heart.
"What is there for me to do, Rodney?" he cried. "I forge a shoe, and I fuller it, and I clip it, and I caulken it, and I knock five holes in it, and there it is finished. Then I do it again and again, and blow up the bellows and feed the forge, and rasp a hoof or two, and there is a day's work done, and every day the same as the other. Was it for this only, do you think, that I was born into the world?"
I looked at him, his proud, eagle face, and his tall, sinewy figure, and I wondered whether in the whole land there was a finer, handsomer man.
"The Army or the Navy is the place for you, Jim," said I.
"That is very well," he cried. "If you go into the Navy, as you are likely to do, you go as an officer, and it is you who do the ordering. If I go in, it is as one who was born to receive orders."
"An officer gets his orders from those above him."
"But an officer does not have the lash hung over his head. I saw a poor fellow at the inn here—it was some years ago—who showed us his back in the tap-room, all cut into red diamonds with the boat-swain's whip. 'Who ordered that?' I asked. 'The captain,' said he. 'And what would you have had if you had struck him dead?' said I. 'The yard-arm,' he answered. 'Then if I had been you that's where I should have been,' said I, and I spoke the truth. I can't help it, Rod! There's something here in my heart, something that is as much a part of myself as this hand is, which holds me to it."
"I know that you are as proud as Lucifer," said I.
"It was born with me, Roddy, and I can't help it. Life would be easier if I could. I was made to be my own master, and there's only one place where I can hope to be so."
"Where is that, Jim?"
"In London. Miss Hinton has told me of it, until I feel as if I could find my way through it from end to end. She loves to talk of it as well as I do to listen. I have it all laid out in my mind, and I can see where the playhouses are, and how the river runs, and where the King's house is, and the Prince's, and the place where the fighting-men live. I could make my name known in London."
"Never mind how, Rod. I could do it, and I will do it, too. 'Wait!' says my uncle—'wait, and it will all come right for you.' That is what he always says, and my aunt the same. Why should I wait? What am I to wait for? No, Roddy, I'll stay no longer eating my heart out in this little village, but I'll leave my apron behind me and I'll seek my fortune in London, and when I come back to Friar's Oak, it will be in such style as that gentleman yonder."
He pointed as he spoke, and there was a high crimson curricle coming down the London road, with two bay mares harnessed tandem fashion before it. The reins and fittings were of a light fawn colour, and the gentleman had a driving-coat to match, with a servant in dark livery behind. They flashed past us in a rolling cloud of dust, and I had just a glimpse of the pale, handsome face of the master, and of the dark, shrivelled features of the man. I should never have given them another thought had it not chanced that when the village came into view there was the curricle again, standing at the door of the inn, and the grooms busy taking out the horses.
"Jim," I cried, "I believe it is my uncle!" and taking to my heels I ran for home at the top of my speed. At the door was standing the dark-faced servant. He carried a cushion, upon which lay a small and fluffy lapdog.
"You will excuse me, young sir," said he, in the suavest, most soothing of voices, "but am I right in supposing that this is the house of Lieutenant Stone? In that case you will, perhaps, do me the favour to hand to Mrs. Stone this note which her brother, Sir Charles Tregellis, has just committed to my care."
I was quite abashed by the man's flowery way of talking—so unlike anything which I had ever heard. He had a wizened face, and sharp little dark eyes, which took in me and the house and my mother's startled face at the window all in the instant. My parents were together, the two of them, in the sitting-room, and my mother read the note to us.
"My dear Mary," it ran, "I have stopped at the inn, because I am somewhat ravage by the dust of your Sussex roads. A lavender-water bath may restore me to a condition in which I may fitly pay my compliments to a lady. Meantime, I send you Fidelio as a hostage. Pray give him a half-pint of warmish milk with six drops of pure brandy in it. A better or more faithful creature never lived. Toujours a toi.—Charles."
"Have him in! Have him in!" cried my father, heartily, running to the door. "Come in, Mr. Fidelio. Every man to his own taste, and six drops to the half-pint seems a sinful watering of grog—but if you like it so, you shall have it."
A smile flickered over the dark face of the servant, but his features reset themselves instantly into their usual mask of respectful observance.
"You are labouring under a slight error, sir, if you will permit me to say so. My name is Ambrose, and I have the honour to be the valet of Sir Charles Tregellis. This is Fidelio upon the cushion."
"Tut, the dog!" cried my father, in disgust. "Heave him down by the fireside. Why should he have brandy, when many a Christian has to go without?"
"Hush, Anson!" said my mother, taking the cushion. "You will tell Sir Charles that his wishes shall be carried out, and that we shall expect him at his own convenience."
The man went off noiselessly and swiftly, but was back in a few minutes with a flat brown basket.
"It is the refection, madam," said he. "Will you permit me to lay the table? Sir Charles is accustomed to partake of certain dishes and to drink certain wines, so that we usually bring them with us when we visit." He opened the basket, and in a minute he had the table all shining with silver and glass, and studded with dainty dishes. So quick and neat and silent was he in all he did, that my father was as taken with him as I was.
"You'd have made a right good foretopman if your heart is as stout as your fingers are quick," said he. "Did you never wish to have the honour of serving your country?"
"It is my honour, sir, to serve Sir Charles Tregellis, and I desire no other master," he answered. "But I will convey his dressing-case from the inn, and then all will be ready."
He came back with a great silver-mounted box under his arm, and close at his heels was the gentleman whose coming had made such a disturbance.
My first impression of my uncle as he entered the room was that one of his eyes was swollen to the size of an apple. It caught the breath from my lips—that monstrous, glistening eye. But the next instant I perceived that he held a round glass in the front of it, which magnified it in this fashion. He looked at us each in turn, and then he bowed very gracefully to my mother and kissed her upon either cheek.
"You will permit me to compliment you, my dear Mary," said he, in a voice which was the most mellow and beautiful that I have ever heard. "I can assure you that the country air has used you wondrous well, and that I should be proud to see my pretty sister in the Mall. I am your servant, sir," he continued, holding out his hand to my father. "It was but last week that I had the honour of dining with my friend, Lord St. Vincent, and I took occasion to mention you to him. I may tell you that your name is not forgotten at the Admiralty, sir, and I hope that I may see you soon walking the poop of a 74-gun ship of your own. So this is my nephew, is it?" He put a hand upon each of my shoulders in a very friendly way and looked me up and down.
"How old are you, nephew?" he asked.
"You look older. You look eighteen, at the least. I find him very passable, Mary—very passable, indeed. He has not the bel air, the tournure—in our uncouth English we have no word for it. But he is as healthy as a May-hedge in bloom."
So within a minute of his entering our door he had got himself upon terms with all of us, and with so easy and graceful a manner that it seemed as if he had known us all for years. I had a good look at him now as he stood upon the hearthrug with my mother upon one side and my father on the other. He was a very large man, with noble shoulders, small waist, broad hips, well-turned legs, and the smallest of hands and feet. His face was pale and handsome, with a prominent chin, a jutting nose, and large blue staring eyes, in which a sort of dancing, mischievous light was for ever playing. He wore a deep brown coat with a collar as high as his ears and tails as low as his knees. His black breeches and silk stockings ended in very small pointed shoes, so highly polished that they twinkled with every movement. His vest was of black velvet, open at the top to show an embroidered shirt-front, with a high, smooth, white cravat above it, which kept his neck for ever on the stretch. He stood easily, with one thumb in the arm-pit, and two fingers of the other hand in his vest pocket. It made me proud as I watched him to think that so magnificent a man, with such easy, masterful ways, should be my own blood relation, and I could see from my mother's eyes as they turned towards him that the same thought was in her mind.
All this time Ambrose had been standing like a dark-clothed, bronze-faced image by the door, with the big silver-bound box under his arm. He stepped forward now into the room.
"Shall I convey it to your bedchamber, Sir Charles?" he asked.
"Ah, pardon me, sister Mary," cried my uncle, "I am old-fashioned enough to have principles—an anachronism, I know, in this lax age. One of them is never to allow my batterie de toilette out of my sight when I am travelling. I cannot readily forget the agonies which I endured some years ago through neglecting this precaution. I will do Ambrose the justice to say that it was before he took charge of my affairs. I was compelled to wear the same ruffles upon two consecutive days. On the third morning my fellow was so affected by the sight of my condition, that he burst into tears and laid out a pair which he had stolen from me."
As he spoke his face was very grave, but the light in his eyes danced and gleamed. He handed his open snuff-box to my father, as Ambrose followed my mother out of the room.
"You number yourself in an illustrious company by upping your finger and thumb into it," said he.
"Indeed, sir!" said my father, shortly.
"You are free of my box, as being a relative by marriage. You are free also, nephew, and I pray you to take a pinch. It is the most intimate sign of my goodwill. Outside ourselves there are four, I think, who have had access to it—the Prince, of course; Mr Pitt; Monsieur Otto, the French Ambassador; and Lord Hawkesbury. I have sometimes thought that I was premature with Lord Hawkesbury."
"I am vastly honoured, sir," said my father, looking suspiciously at his guest from under his shaggy eyebrows, for with that grave face and those twinkling eyes it was hard to know how to take him.
"A woman, sir, has her love to bestow," said my uncle. "A man has his snuff-box. Neither is to be lightly offered. It is a lapse of taste; nay, more, it is a breach of morals. Only the other day, as I was seated in Watier's, my box of prime macouba open upon the table beside me, an Irish bishop thrust in his intrusive fingers. 'Waiter,' I cried, 'my box has been soiled! Remove it!' The man meant no insult, you understand, but that class of people must be kept in their proper sphere.'
"A bishop!" cried my father. "You draw your line very high, sir."
"Yes, sir," said my uncle; "I wish no better epitaph upon my tombstone."
My mother had in the meanwhile descended, and we all drew up to the table.
"You will excuse my apparent grossness, Mary, in venturing to bring my own larder with me. Abernethy has me under his orders, and I must eschew your rich country dainties. A little white wine and a cold bird—it is as much as the niggardly Scotchman will allow me."
"We should have you on blockading service when the levanters are blowing," said my father. "Salt junk and weevilly biscuits, with a rib of a tough Barbary ox when the tenders come in. You would have your spare diet there, sir."
Straightway my uncle began to question him about the sea service, and for the whole meal my father was telling him of the Nile and of the Toulon blockade, and the siege of Genoa, and all that he had seen and done. But whenever he faltered for a word, my uncle always had it ready for him, and it was hard to say which knew most about the business.
"No, I read little or nothing," said he, when my father marvelled where he got his knowledge. "The fact is that I can hardly pick up a print without seeing some allusion to myself: 'Sir C. T. does this,' or 'Sir C. T. says the other,' so I take them no longer. But if a man is in my position all knowledge comes to him. The Duke of York tells me of the Army in the morning, and Lord Spencer chats with me of the Navy in the afternoon, and Dundas whispers me what is going forward in the Cabinet, so that I have little need of the Times or the Morning Chronicle."
This set him talking of the great world of London, telling my father about the men who were his masters at the Admiralty, and my mother about the beauties of the town, and the great ladies at Almack's, but all in the same light, fanciful way, so that one never knew whether to laugh or to take him gravely. I think it flattered him to see the way in which we all three hung upon his words. Of some he thought highly and of some lowly, but he made no secret that the highest of all, and the one against whom all others should be measured, was Sir Charles Tregellis himself.
"As to the King," said he, "of course, I am l'ami de famille there; and even with you I can scarce speak freely, as my relations are confidential."
"God bless him and keep him from ill!" cried my father.
"It is pleasant to hear you say so," said my uncle. "One has to come into the country to hear honest loyalty, for a sneer and a gibe are more the fashions in town. The King is grateful to me for the interest which I have ever shown in his son. He likes to think that the Prince has a man of taste in his circle."
"And the Prince?" asked my mother. "Is he well-favoured?"
"He is a fine figure of a man. At a distance he has been mistaken for me. And he has some taste in dress, though he gets slovenly if I am too long away from him. I warrant you that I find a crease in his coat to-morrow."
We were all seated round the fire by this time, for the evening had turned chilly. The lamp was lighted and so also was my father's pipe.
"I suppose," said he, "that this is your first visit to Friar's Oak?"
My uncle's face turned suddenly very grave and stern.
"It is my first visit for many years," said he. "I was but one-and-twenty years of age when last I came here. I am not likely to forget it."
I knew that he spoke of his visit to Cliffe Royal at the time of the murder, and I saw by her face that my mother knew it also. My father, however, had either never heard of it, or had forgotten the circumstance.
"Was it at the inn you stayed?" he asked.
"I stayed with the unfortunate Lord Avon. It was the occasion when he was accused of slaying his younger brother and fled from the country."
We all fell silent, and my uncle leaned his chin upon his hand, looking thoughtfully into the fire. If I do but close my eyes now, I can see the light upon his proud, handsome face, and see also my dear father, concerned at having touched upon so terrible a memory, shooting little slanting glances at him betwixt the puffs of his pipe.
"I dare say that it has happened with you, sir," said my uncle at last, "that you have lost some dear messmate, in battle or wreck, and that you have put him out of your mind in the routine of your daily life, until suddenly some word or some scene brings him back to your memory, and you find your sorrow as raw as upon the first day of your loss."
My father nodded.
"So it is with me to-night. I never formed a close friendship with a man—I say nothing of women—save only the once. That was with Lord Avon. We were of an age, he a few years perhaps my senior, but our tastes, our judgments, and our characters were alike, save only that he had in him a touch of pride such as I have never known in any other man. Putting aside the little foibles of a rich young man of fashion, les indescretions d'une jeunesse doree, I could have sworn that he was as good a man as I have ever known."
"How came he, then, to such a crime?" asked my father.
My uncle shook his head.
"Many a time have I asked myself that question, and it comes home to me more to-night than ever."
All the jauntiness had gone out of his manner, and he had turned suddenly into a sad and serious man.
"Was it certain that he did it, Charles?" asked my mother.
My uncle shrugged his shoulders.
"I wish I could think it were not so. I have thought sometimes that it was this very pride, turning suddenly to madness, which drove him to it. You have heard how he returned the money which we had lost?"
"Nay, I have heard nothing of it," my father answered.
"It is a very old story now, though we have not yet found an end to it. We had played for two days, the four of us: Lord Avon, his brother Captain Barrington, Sir Lothian Hume, and myself. Of the Captain I knew little, save that he was not of the best repute, and was deep in the hands of the Jews. Sir Lothian has made an evil name for himself since—'tis the same Sir Lothian who shot Lord Carton in the affair at Chalk Farm—but in those days there was nothing against him. The oldest of us was but twenty-four, and we gamed on, as I say, until the Captain had cleared the board. We were all hit, but our host far the hardest.
"That night—I tell you now what it would be a bitter thing for me to tell in a court of law—I was restless and sleepless, as often happens when a man has kept awake over long. My mind would dwell upon the fall of the cards, and I was tossing and turning in my bed, when suddenly a cry fell upon my ears, and then a second louder one, coming from the direction of Captain Barrington's room. Five minutes later I heard steps passing down the passage, and, without striking a light, I opened my door and peeped out, thinking that some one was taken unwell. There was Lord Avon walking towards me. In one hand he held a guttering candle and in the other a brown bag, which chinked as he moved. His face was all drawn and distorted—so much so that my question was frozen upon my lips. Before I could utter it he turned into his chamber and softly closed the door.
"Next morning I was awakened by finding him at my bedside.
"'Charles,' said he, 'I cannot abide to think that you should have lost this money in my house. You will find it here upon your table.'
"It was in vain that I laughed at his squeamishness, telling him that I should most certainly have claimed my money had I won, so that it would be strange indeed if I were not permitted to pay it when I lost.
"'Neither I nor my brother will touch it,' said he. 'There it lies, and you may do what you like about it.'
"He would listen to no argument, but dashed out of the room like a madman. But perhaps these details are familiar to you, and God knows they are painful to me to tell."
My father was sitting with staring eyes, and his forgotten pipe reeking in his hand.
"Pray let us hear the end of it, sir," he cried.
"Well, then, I had finished my toilet in an hour or so—for I was less exigeant in those days than now—and I met Sir Lothian Hume at breakfast. His experience had been the same as my own, and he was eager to see Captain Barrington; and to ascertain why he had directed his brother to return the money to us. We were talking the matter over when suddenly I raised my eyes to the corner of the ceiling, and I saw—I saw—"
My uncle had turned quite pale with the vividness of the memory, and he passed his hand over his eyes.
"It was crimson," said he, with a shudder—"crimson with black cracks, and from every crack—but I will give you dreams, sister Mary. Suffice it that we rushed up the stair which led direct to the Captain's room, and there we found him lying with the bone gleaming white through his throat. A hunting-knife lay in the room—and the knife was Lord Avon's. A lace ruffle was found in the dead man's grasp—and the ruffle was Lord Avon's. Some papers were found charred in the grate—and the papers were Lord Avon's. Oh, my poor friend, in what moment of madness did you come to do such a deed?"
The light had gone out of my uncle's eyes and the extravagance from his manner. His speech was clear and plain, with none of those strange London ways which had so amazed me. Here was a second uncle, a man of heart and a man of brains, and I liked him better than the first.
"And what said Lord Avon?" cried my father.
"He said nothing. He went about like one who walks in his sleep, with horror-stricken eyes. None dared arrest him until there should be due inquiry, but when the coroner's court brought wilful murder against him, the constables came for him in full cry. But they found him fled. There was a rumour that he had been seen in Westminster in the next week, and then that he had escaped for America, but nothing more is known. It will be a bright day for Sir Lothian Hume when they can prove him dead, for he is next of kin, and till then he can touch neither title nor estate."
The telling of this grim story had cast a chill upon all of us. My uncle held out his hands towards the blaze, and I noticed that they were as white as the ruffles which fringed them.
"I know not how things are at Cliffe Royal now," said he, thoughtfully. "It was not a cheery house, even before this shadow fell upon it. A fitter stage was never set forth for such a tragedy. But seventeen years have passed, and perhaps even that horrible ceiling—"
"It still bears the stain," said I.
I know not which of the three was the more astonished, for my mother had not heard of my adventures of the night. They never took their wondering eyes off me as I told my story, and my heart swelled with pride when my uncle said that we had carried ourselves well, and that he did not think that many of our age would have stood it as stoutly.
"But as to this ghost, it must have been the creature of your own minds," said he. "Imagination plays us strange tricks, and though I have as steady a nerve as a man might wish, I cannot answer for what I might see if I were to stand under that blood-stained ceiling at midnight."
"Uncle," said I, "I saw a figure as plainly as I see that fire, and I heard the steps as clearly as I hear the crackle of the fagots. Besides, we could not both be deceived."
"There is truth in that," said be, thoughtfully. "You saw no features, you say?"
"It was too dark."
"But only a figure?"
"The dark outline of one."
"And it retreated up the stairs?"
"And vanished into the wall?"
"What part of the wall?" cried a voice from behind us.
My mother screamed, and down came my father's pipe on to the hearthrug. I had sprung round with a catch of my breath, and there was the valet, Ambrose, his body in the shadow of the doorway, his dark face protruded into the light, and two burning eyes fixed upon mine.
"What the deuce is the meaning of this, sir?" cried my uncle.
It was strange to see the gleam and passion fade out of the man's face, and the demure mask of the valet replace it. His eyes still smouldered, but his features regained their prim composure in an instant.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Charles," said he. "I had come in to ask you if you had any orders for me, and I did not like to interrupt the young gentleman's story. I am afraid that I have been somewhat carried away by it."
"I never knew you forget yourself before," said my uncle.
"You will, I am sure, forgive me, Sir Charles, if you will call to mind the relation in which I stood to Lord Avon." He spoke with some dignity of manner, and with a bow he left the room.
"We must make some little allowance," said my uncle, with a sudden return to his jaunty manner. "When a man can brew a dish of chocolate, or tie a cravat, as Ambrose does, he may claim consideration. The fact is that the poor fellow was valet to Lord Avon, that he was at Cliffe Royal upon the fatal night of which I have spoken, and that he is most devoted to his old master. But my talk has been somewhat triste, sister Mary, and now we shall return, if you please, to the dresses of the Countess Lieven, and the gossip of St. James."