The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Fifteen
No evidence of any importance was given at the inquest except Westray's and the doctor's, and no other evidence was, in fact, required. Dr Ennefer had made an autopsy, and found that the immediate cause of death was a blow on the back of the head. But the organs showed traces of alcoholic habit, and the heart was distinctly diseased. It was probable that Mr Sharnall had been seized with a fainting fit as he left the organ-stool, and had fallen backwards with his head on the pedal-board. He must have fallen with much violence, and the pedal-note had made a bad wound, such as would be produced by a blunt instrument.
The inquest was nearly finished when, without any warning, Westray found himself, as by intuition, asking:
"The wound was such a one, you mean, as might have been produced by the blow of a hammer?"
The doctor seemed surprised, the jury and the little audience stared, but most surprised of all was Westray at his own question.
"You have no locus standi, sir," the coroner said severely; "such an interrogation is irregular. You are to esteem it an act of grace if I allow the medical man to reply."
"Yes," said Dr Ennefer, with a reserve in his voice that implied that he was not there to answer every irrelevant question that it might please foolish people to put to him—"yes, such a wound as might have been caused by a hammer, or by any other blunt instrument used with violence."
"Even by a heavy stick?" Westray suggested.
The doctor maintained a dignified silence, and the coroner struck in:
"I must say I think you are wasting our time, Mr Westray. I am the last person to stifle legitimate inquiry, but no inquiry is really needed here; it is quite certain that this poor man came to his end by falling heavily, and dashing his head against this wooden note in the pedals."
"Is it quite certain?" Westray asked. "Is Dr Ennefer quite sure that the wound could have been caused by a mere fall; I only want to know that Dr Ennefer is quite sure."
The coroner looked at the doctor with a deprecating glance, which implied apologies that so much unnecessary trouble should be given, and a hope that he would be graciously pleased to put an end to it by an authoritative statement.
"Oh, I am quite sure," the doctor responded. "Yes"—and he hesitated for the fraction of a second—"oh yes, there is no doubt such a wound could be caused by a fall."
"I merely wish to point out," said Westray, "that the pedal-note on which he fell is to a certain extent a yielding substance; it would yield, you must remember, at the first impact."
"That is quite true," the doctor said; "I had taken that into account, and admit that one would scarcely expect so serious an injury to have been caused. But, of course, it was so caused, because there is no other explanation; you don't suggest, I presume, that there was any foul play. It is certainly a case of accident or foul play."
"Oh no, I don't suggest anything."
The coroner raised his eyebrows; he was tired, and could not understand such waste of time. But the doctor, curiously enough, seemed to have grown more tolerant of interruption.
"I have examined the injury very carefully," he said, "and have come to the deliberate conclusion that it must have been caused by the wooden key. We must also recollect that the effect of any blow would be intensified by a weak state of health. I don't wish to rake up anything against the poor fellow's memory, or to say any word that may cause you pain, Mr Westray, as his friend; but an examination of the body revealed traces of chronic alcoholism. We must recollect that."
"The man was, in fact, a confirmed drunkard," the coroner said. He lived at Carisbury, and, being a stranger both to Cullerne and its inhabitants, had no scruple in speaking plainly; and, besides this, he was nettled at the architect's interference. "You mean the man was a confirmed drunkard," he repeated.
"He was nothing of the kind," Westray said hotly. "I do not say that he never took more than was good for him, but he was in no sense an habitual drunkard."
"I did not ask your opinion," retorted the coroner; "we do not want any lay conjectures. What do you say, Mr Ennefer?"
The surgeon was vexed in his turn at not receiving the conventional title of doctor, the more so because he knew that he had no legal right to it. To be called "Mr" demeaned him, he considered, in the eyes of present or prospective patients, and he passed at once into an attitude of opposition.
"Oh no, you quite mistake me, Mr Coroner. I did not mean that our poor friend was an habitual drunkard. I never remember to have actually seen him the worse for liquor."
"Well, what do you mean? You say the body shows traces of alcoholism, but that he was not a drunkard."
"Have we any evidence as to Mr Sharnall's state on the evening of his death?" a juror asked, with a pleasant consciousness that he was taking a dispassionate view, and making a point of importance.
"Yes, we have considerable evidence," said the coroner. "Call Charles White."
There stepped forward a little man with a red face and blinking eyes. His name was Charles White; he was landlord of the Merrymouth Inn. The deceased visited his inn on the evening in question. He did not know deceased by sight, but found out afterwards who he was. It was a bad night, deceased was very wet, and took something to drink; he drank a fairish amount, but not that much, not more than a gentleman should drink. Deceased was not drunk when he went away.
"He was drunk enough to leave his top-coat behind him, was he not?" the coroner asked. "Did you not find this coat after he was gone?" and he pointed to a poor masterless garment, that looked greener and more outworn than ever as it hung over the back of a chair.
"Yes, deceased had certainly left his coat behind him, but he was not drunk."
"There are different standards of drunkenness, gentlemen," said the coroner, imitating as well as he might the facetious cogency of a real judge, "and I imagine that the standard of the Merrymouth may be more advanced than in some other places. I don't think"—and he looked sarcastically at Westray—"I do not think we need carry this inquiry farther. We have a man who drinks, not an habitual drunkard, Mr Ennefer says, but one who drinks enough to bring himself into a thoroughly diseased state. This man sits fuddling in a low public-house all the evening, and is so far overtaken by liquor when he goes away, that he leaves his overcoat behind him. He actually leaves his coat behind him, though we have it that it was a pouring wet night. He goes to the organ-loft in a tipsy state, slips as he is getting on to his stool, falls heavily with the back of his head on a piece of wood, and is found dead some hours later by an unimpeachable and careful witness"—and he gave a little sniff—"with his head still on this piece of wood. Take note of that—when he was found his head was still on this very pedal which had caused the fatal injury. Gentlemen, I do not think we need any further evidence; I think your course is pretty clear."
All was, indeed, very clear. The jury with a unanimous verdict of accidental death put the colophon to the sad history of Mr Sharnall, and ruled that the same failing which had blighted his life, had brought him at last to a drunkard's end.
Westray walked back to the Hand of God with the forlorn old top-coat over his arm. The coroner had formally handed it over to him. He was evidently a close friend of the deceased, he would perhaps take charge of his wearing apparel. The architect's thoughts were too preoccupied to allow him to resent the sneer which accompanied these remarks; he went off full of sorrow and gloomy forebodings.
Death in so strange a shape formed a topic of tavern discussion in Cullerne, second only to a murder itself. Not since Mr Leveritt, the timber-merchant, shot a barmaid at the Blandamer Arms, a generation since, had any such dramatic action taken place on Cullerne boards. The loafers swore over it in all its bearings as they spat upon the pavement at the corner of the market square. Mr Smiles, the shop-walker in Rose and Storey's general drapery mart, discussed it genteelly with the ladies who sat before the counter on the high wicker-seated chairs.
Dr Ennefer was betrayed into ill-advised conversation while being shaved, and got his chin cut. Mr Joliffe gave away a packet of moral reflections gratis with every pound of sausage, and turned up the whites of his eyes over the sin of intemperance, which had called away his poor friend in so terrible a state of unpreparedness. Quite a crowd followed the coffin to its last resting-place, and the church was unusually full on the Sunday morning which followed the catastrophe. People expected a "pulpit reference" from Canon Parkyn, and there were the additional, though subordinate, attractions of the playing of the Dead March, and the possibility of an amateur organist breaking down in the anthem.
Church-going, which sprung from such unworthy motives, was very properly disappointed. Canon Parkyn would not, he said, pander to sensationalism by any allusion in his discourse, nor could the Dead March, he conceived, be played with propriety under such very unpleasant circumstances. The new organist got through the service with provokingly colourless mediocrity, and the congregation came out of Saint Sepulchre's in a disappointed mood, as people who had been defrauded of their rights.
Then the nine days' wonder ceased, and Mr Sharnall passed into the great oblivion of middle-class dead. His successor was not immediately appointed. Canon Parkyn arranged that the second master at the National School, who had a pretty notion of music, and was a pupil of Mr Sharnall, should be spared to fill the gap. As Queen Elizabeth, of pious memory, recruited the privy purse by keeping in her own hand vacant bishoprics, so the rector farmed the post of organist at Cullerne Minster. He thus managed to effect so important a reduction in the sordid emoluments of that office, that he was five pounds in pocket before a year was ended.
But if the public had forgotten Mr Sharnall, Westray had not. The architect was a man of gregarious instinct. As there is a tradition and bonding of common interest about the Universities, and in a less degree about army, navy, public schools, and professions, which draws together and marks with its impress those who are attached to them, so there is a certain cabala and membership among lodgers which none can understand except those who are free of that guild.
The lodging-house life, call it squalid, mean, dreary if you will, is not without its alleviations and counterpoises. It is a life of youth for the most part, for lodgers of Mr Sharnall's age are comparatively rare; it is a life of simple needs and simple tastes, for lodgings are not artistic, nor favourable to the development of any undue refinement; it is not a rich life, for men as a rule set up their own houses as soon as they are able to do so; it is a life of work and buoyant anticipation, where men are equipping for the struggle, and laying the foundations of fortune, or digging the pit of indigence. Such conditions beget and foster good fellowship, and those who have spent time in lodgings can look back to whole-hearted and disinterested friendships, when all were equal before high heaven, hail-fellows well met, who knew no artificial distinctions of rank—when all were travelling the first stage of life's journey in happy chorus together, and had not reached that point where the high road bifurcates, and the diverging branches of success and failure lead old comrades so very far apart. Ah, what a camaraderie and fellowship, knit close by the urgency of making both ends meet, strengthened by the necessity of withstanding rapacious, or negligent, or tyrannous landladies, sweetened by kindnesses and courtesies which cost the giver little, but mean much to the receiver! Did sickness of a transitory sort (for grievous illness is little known in lodgings) fall on the ground-floor tenant, then did not the first-floor come down to comfort him in the evenings? First-floor might be tired after a long day's work, and note when his frugal meal was done that 'twas a fine evening, or that a good company was billed for the local theatre; yet he would grudge not his leisure, but go down to sit with ground-floor, and tell him the news of the day, perhaps even would take him a few oranges or a tin of sardines. And ground-floor, who had chafed all the day at being shut in, and had read himself stupid for want of anything else to do, how glad he was to see first-floor, and how the chat did him more good than all the doctor's stuff!
And later on, when some ladies came to lunch with first-floor on the day of the flower-show, did not ground-floor go out and place his sitting-room completely at his fellow-lodger's disposal, so that the company might find greater convenience and change of air after meat? They were fearful joys, these feminine visits, when ladies who were kind enough to ask a young man to spend a Sunday with them, still further added to their kindness, by accepting with all possible effusion the invitation which he one day ventured to give. It was a fearful joy, and cost the host more anxious preparation than a state funeral brings to Earl-marshal. As brave a face as might be must be put on everything; so many details were to be thought out, so many little insufficiencies were to be masked. But did not the result recompense all? Was not the young man conscious that, though his rooms might be small, there was about them a delicate touch which made up for much, that everything breathed of refinement from the photographs and silver toddy-spoon upon the mantelpiece to Rossetti's poems and "Marius the Epicurean," which covered negligently a stain on the green tablecloth? And these kindly ladies came in riant mood, well knowing all his little anxieties and preparations, yet showing they knew none of them; resolved to praise his rooms, his puny treasures, even his cookery and perilous wine, and skilful to turn little contretemps into interesting novelties. Householders, yours is a noble lot, ye are the men, and wisdom shall die with you. Yet pity not too profoundly him that inhabiteth lodgings, lest he turn and rend you, pitying you in turn that have bound on your shoulders heavy burdens of which he knows nothing; saying to you that seed time is more profitable than harvest, and the wandering years than the practice of the master. Refrain from too much pity, and believe that loneliness is not always lonely.
Westray was of a gregarious temperament, and missed his fellow-lodger. The cranky little man, with all his soured outlook, must still have had some power of evoking sympathy, some attractive element in his composition. He concealed it under sharp words and moody bitterness, but it must still have been there, for Westray felt his loss more than he had thought possible. The organist and he had met twice and thrice a day for a year past. They had discussed the minster that both loved so well, within whose walls both were occupied; they had discussed the nebuly coat, and the Blandamers, and Miss Euphemia. There was only one subject which they did not discuss—namely, Miss Anastasia Joliffe, though she was very often in the thoughts of both.
It was all over now, yet every day Westray found himself making a mental note to tell this to Mr Sharnall, to ask Mr Sharnall's advice on that, and then remembering that there is no knowledge in the grave. The gaunt Hand of God was ten times gaunter now that there was no lodger on the ground-floor. Footfalls sounded more hollow at night on the stone steps of the staircase, and Miss Joliffe and Anastasia went early to bed.
"Let us go upstairs, my dear," Miss Euphemia would say when the chimes sounded a quarter to ten. "These long evenings are so lonely, are they not? and be sure you see that the windows are properly hasped." And then they hurried through the hall, and went up the staircase together side by side, as if they were afraid to be separated by a single step. Even Westray knew something of the same feeling when he returned late at night to the cavernous great house. He tried to put his hand as quickly as he might upon the matchbox, which lay ready for him on the marble-topped sideboard in the dark hall; and sometimes when he had lit the candle would instinctively glance at the door of Mr Sharnall's room, half expecting to see it open, and the old face look out that had so often greeted him on such occasions. Miss Joliffe had made no attempt to find a new lodger. No "Apartments to Let" was put in the window, and such chattels as Mr Sharnall possessed remained exactly as he left them. Only one thing was moved—the collection of Martin Joliffe's papers, and these Westray had taken upstairs to his own room.
When they opened the dead man's bureau with the keys found in his pocket to see whether he had left any will or instructions, there was discovered in one of the drawers a note addressed to Westray. It was dated a fortnight before his death, and was very short:
"If I go away and am not heard of, or if anything happens to me, get hold of Martin Joliffe's papers at once. Take them up to your own room, lock them up, and don't let them out of your hands. Tell Miss Joliffe it is my wish, and she will hand them over to you. Be very careful there isn't a fire, or lest they should be destroyed in any other way. Read them carefully, and draw your own conclusions; you will find some notes of mine in the little red pocket-book."
The architect had read these words many times. They were no doubt the outcome of the delusions of which Mr Sharnall had more than once spoken—of that dread of some enemy pursuing him, which had darkened the organist's latter days. Yet to read these things set out in black and white, after what had happened, might well give rise to curious thoughts. The coincidence was so strange, so terribly strange. A man following with a hammer—that had been the organist's hallucination; the vision of an assailant creeping up behind, and doing him to death with an awful, stealthy blow. And the reality—an end sudden and unexpected, a blow on the back of the head, which had been caused by a heavy fall. Was it mere coincidence, was it some inexplicable presentiment, or was it more than either? Had there, in fact, existed a reason why the organist should think that someone had a grudge against him, that he was likely to be attacked? Had some dreadful scene been really enacted in the loneliness of the great church that night? Had the organist been taken unawares, or heard some movement in the silence, and, turning round, found himself alone with his murderer? And if a murderer, whose was the face into which the victim looked? And as Westray thought he shuddered; it seemed it might have been no human face at all, but some fearful presence, some visible presentment of the evil that walketh in darkness.
Then the architect would brush such follies away like cobwebs, and, turning back, consider who could have found his interest in such a deed. Against whom did the dead man urge him to be on guard lest Martin's papers should be spirited away? Was there some other claimant of that ill-omened peerage of whom he knew nothing, or was it—And Westray resolutely quenched the thought that had risen a hundred times before his mind, and cast it aside as a malign and baseless suspicion.
If there was any clue it must lie in those same papers, and he followed the instruction given him, and took them to his own room. He did not show Miss Joliffe the note; to do so could only have shaken her further, and she had felt the shock too severely already. He only told her of Mr Sharnall's wishes for the temporary disposal of her brother's papers. She begged him not to take them.
"Dear Mr Westray," she said, "do not touch them, do not let us have anything to do with them. I wanted poor dear Mr Sharnall not to go meddling with them, and now see what has happened. Perhaps it is a judgment"—and she uttered the word under her breath, having a medieval faith in the vengeful irritability of Providence, and seeing manifestations of it in any untoward event, from the overturning of an inkstand to the death of a lodger. "Perhaps it is a judgment, and he might have been alive now if he had refrained. What good would it do us if all dear Martin hoped should turn out true? He always said, poor fellow, that he would be 'my lord' some day; but now he is gone there is no one except Anastasia, and she would never wish to be 'my lady,' I am sure, poor girl. You would not, darling, wish to be 'my lady' even if you could, would you?"
Anastasia looked up from her book with a deprecating smile, which lost itself in an air of vexation, when she found that the architect's eyes were fixed steadfastly upon her, and that a responsive smile spread over his face. She flushed very slightly, and turned back abruptly to her book, feeling quite unjustifiably annoyed at the interest in her doings which the young man's gaze was meant to imply. What right had he to express concern, even with a look, in matters which affected her? She almost wished she was indeed a peeress, and could slay him with her noble birth, as did one Lady Clara of old times. It was only lately that she had become conscious of this interested, would-be interesting, look, which Westray assumed in her presence. Was it possible that he was falling in love with her? And at the thought there rose before her fancy the features of someone else, haughty, hard, perhaps malign, but oh, so powerful, and quite eclipsed and blotted out the lifeless amiability of this young man who hung upon her lips.
Could Mr Westray be thinking of falling in love with her? It was impossible, and yet this following her with his eyes, and the mellific manner which he adopted when speaking to her, insisted on its possibility. She ran over hastily in her mind, as she had done several times of late, the course of their relations. Was she to blame? Could anything that she had ever done be wrested into predilection or even into appreciation? Could natural kindness or courtesy have been so utterly misunderstood? She was victoriously acquitted by this commission of mental inquiry, and left the court without a stain upon her character. She certainly had never given him the very least encouragement. At the risk of rudeness she must check these attentions in their beginning. Short of actual discourtesy, she must show him that this warm interest in her doings, these sympathetic glances, were exceedingly distasteful. She never would look near him again, she would keep her eyes rigorously cast down whenever he was present, and as she made this prudent resolution she quite unintentionally looked up, and found his patient gaze again fixed upon her.
"Oh, you are too severe, Miss Joliffe," the architect said; "we should all be delighted to see a title come to Miss Anastasia, and," he added softly, "I am sure no one would become it better."
He longed to drop the formal prefix of Miss, and to speak of her simply as Anastasia. A few months before he would have done so naturally and without reflection, but there was something in the girl's manner which led him more recently to forego this pleasure.
Then the potential peeress got up and left the room.
"I am just going to look after the bread," she said; "I think it ought to be baked by this time."
Miss Joliffe's scruples were at last overborne, and Westray retained the papers, partly because it was represented to her that if he did not examine them it would be a flagrant neglect of the wishes of a dead man—wishes that are held sacred above all others in the circles to which Miss Joliffe belonged—and partly because possession is nine points of the law, and the architect already had them safe under lock and key in his own room. But he was not able to devote any immediate attention to them, for a crisis in his life was approaching, which tended for the present to engross his thoughts.
He had entertained for some time an attachment to Anastasia Joliffe. When he originally became aware of this feeling he battled vigorously against it, and his efforts were at first attended with some success. He was profoundly conscious that any connection with the Joliffes would be derogatory to his dignity; he feared that the discrepancy between their relative positions was sufficiently marked to attract attention, if not to provoke hostile criticism. People would certainly say that an architect was marrying strangely below him, in choosing a landlady's niece. If he were to do such a thing, he would no doubt be throwing himself away socially. His father, who was dead, had been a Wesleyan pastor; and his mother, who survived, entertained so great a respect for the high position of that ministry that she had impressed upon Westray from boyhood the privileges and responsibilities of his birth. But apart from this objection, there was the further drawback that an early marriage might unduly burden him with domestic cares, and so arrest his professional progress. Such considerations had due weight with an equally-balanced mind, and Westray was soon able to congratulate himself on having effectually extinguished any dangerous inclinations by sheer strength of reason.
This happy and philosophic state of things was not of long duration. His admiration smouldered only, and was not quenched, but it was a totally extraneous influence, rather than the constant contemplation of Anastasia's beauty and excellencies, which fanned the flame into renewed activity. This extraneous factor was the entrance of Lord Blandamer into the little circle of Bellevue Lodge. Westray had lately become doubtful as to the real object of Lord Blandamer's visits, and nursed a latent idea that he was using the church, and the restoration, and Westray himself, to gain a pied-à-terre at Bellevue Lodge for the prosecution of other plans. The long conversations in which the architect and the munificent donor still indulged, the examination of plans, the discussion of details, had lost something of their old savour. Westray had done his best to convince himself that his own suspicions were groundless; he had continually pointed out to himself, and insisted to himself, that the mere fact of Lord Blandamer contributing such sums to the restoration as he either had contributed, or had promised to contribute, showed that the church was indeed his primary concern. It was impossible to conceive that any man, however wealthy, should spend many thousand pounds to obtain an entree to Bellevue Lodge; moreover, it was impossible to conceive that Lord Blandamer should ever marry Anastasia—the disparity in such a match would, Westray admitted, be still greater than in his own. Yet he was convinced that Anastasia was often in Lord Blandamer's thoughts. It was true that the Master of Fording gave no definite outward sign of any predilection when Westray was present. He never singled Anastasia out either for regard or conversation on such occasions as chance brought her into his company. At times he even made a show of turning away from her, of studiously neglecting her presence.
But Westray felt that the fact was there.
There is some subtle effluence of love which hovers about one who entertains a strong affection for another. Looks may be carefully guarded, speech may be framed to mislead, yet that pervading ambient of affection is strong to betray where perception is sharpened by jealousy.
Now and then the architect would persuade himself that he was mistaken; he would reproach himself with his own suspicious disposition, with his own lack of generosity. But then some little episode would occur, some wholly undemonstrable trifle, which swept his cooler judgment to the winds, and gave him a quite incommensurate heartburn. He would recall, for instance, the fact that for their interviews Lord Blandamer had commonly selected a Saturday afternoon. Lord Blandamer had explained this by saying that he was busy through the week; but then a lord was not like a schoolboy with a Saturday half-holiday. What business could he have to occupy him all the week, and leave him free on Saturdays? It was strange enough, and stranger from the fact that Miss Euphemia Joliffe was invariably occupied on that particular afternoon at the Dorcas meeting; stranger from the fact that there had been some unaccountable misunderstandings between Lord Blandamer and Westray as to the exact hour fixed for their interviews, and that more than once when the architect had returned at five, he had found that Lord Blandamer had taken four as the time of their meeting, and had been already waiting an hour at Bellevue Lodge.
Poor Mr Sharnall also must have noticed that something was going on, for he had hinted as much to Westray a fortnight or so before he died. Westray was uncertain as to Lord Blandamer's feelings; he gave the architect the idea of a man who had some definite object to pursue in making himself interesting to Anastasia, while his own affections were not compromised. That object could certainly not be marriage, and if it was not marriage, what was it? In ordinary cases an answer might have been easy, yet Westray hesitated to give it. It was hard to think that this grave man, of great wealth and great position, who had roamed the world, and known men and manners, should stoop to common lures. Yet Westray came to think it, and his own feelings towards Anastasia were elevated by the resolve to be her knightly champion against all base attempts.
Can man's deepest love be deepened? Then it must surely be by the knowledge that he is protector as well as lover, by the knowledge that he is rescuing innocence, and rescuing it for—himself. Thoughts such as these bring exaltation to the humblest-minded, and they quickened the slow-flowing and thin fluid that filled the architect's veins.
He came back one evening from the church weary with a long day's work, and was sitting by the fire immersed in a medley of sleepy and half-conscious consideration, now of the crack in the centre tower, now of the tragedy of the organ-loft, now of Anastasia, when the elder Miss Joliffe entered.
"Dear me, sir," she said, "I did not know you were in! I only came to see your fire was burning. Are you ready for your tea? Would you like anything special to-night? You do look so very tired. I am sure you are working too hard; all the running about on ladders and scaffolds must be very trying. I think indeed, sir, if I may make so bold, that you should take a holiday; you have not had a holiday since you came to live with us."
"It is not impossible, Miss Joliffe, that I may take your advice before very long. It is not impossible that I may before long go for a holiday."
He spoke with that preternatural gravity which people are accustomed to throw into their reply, if asked a trivial question when their own thoughts are secretly occupied with some matter that they consider of deep importance. How could this commonplace woman guess that he was thinking of death and love? He must be gentle with her and forgive her interruption. Yes, fate might, indeed, drive him to take a holiday. He had nearly made up his mind to propose to Anastasia. It was scarcely to be doubted that she would at once accept him, but there must be no half-measures, he would brook no shilly-shallying, he would not be played fast and loose with. She must either accept him fully and freely, and at once, or he would withdraw his offer, and in that case, or still more in the entirely improbable case of refusal, he would leave Bellevue Lodge forthwith.
"Yes, indeed, I may ere long have to go away for a holiday."
The conscious forbearance of replying at all gave a quiet dignity to his tone, and an involuntary sigh that accompanied his words was not lost upon Miss Joliffe. To her this speech seemed oracular and ominous; there was a sepulchral mystery in so vague an expression. He might have to take a holiday. What could this mean? Was this poor young man completely broken by the loss of his friend Mr Sharnall, or was he conscious of the seeds of some fell disease that others knew nothing of? He might have to take a holiday. Ah, it was not a mere holiday of which he spoke—he meant something more serious than that; his grave, sad manner could only mean some long absence. Perhaps he was going to leave Cullerne.
To lose him would be a very serious matter to Miss Joliffe from the material point of view; he was her sheet-anchor, the last anchor that kept Bellevue Lodge from drifting into bankruptcy. Mr Sharnall was dead, and with him had died the tiny pittance which he contributed to the upkeep of the place, and lodgers were few and far between in Cullerne. Miss Joliffe might well have remembered these things, but she did not. The only thought that crossed her mind was that if Mr Westray went away she would lose yet another friend. She did not approach the matter from the material point of view, she looked on him only as a friend; she viewed him as no money-making machine, but only as that most precious of all treasures—a last friend.
"I may have to leave you for awhile," he said again, with the same portentous solemnity.
"I hope not, sir," she interrupted, as though by her very eagerness she might avert threatened evil—"I hope not; we should miss you terribly, Mr Westray, with dear Mr Sharnall gone too. I do not know what we should do having no man in the house. It is so very lonely if you are away even for a night. I am an old woman now, and it does not matter much for me, but Anastasia is so nervous at night since the dreadful accident."
Westray's face brightened a little at the mention of Anastasia's name. Yes, his must certainly be a very deep affection, that the naming of her very name should bring him such pleasure. It was on his protection, then, that she leant; she looked on him as her defender. The muscles of his not gigantic arms seemed to swell and leap to bursting in his coat-sleeves. Those arms should screen his loved one from all evil. Visions of Perseus, and Sir Galahad, and Cophetua, swept before his eyes; he had almost cried to Miss Euphemia, "You need have no fear, I love your niece. I shall bow down and raise her to my throne. They that would touch her shall only do so over my dead body," when hesitating common-sense plucked him by the sleeve; he must consult his mother before taking this grave step.
It was well that reason thus restrained him, for such a declaration might have brought Miss Joliffe to a swoon. As it was, she noticed the cloud lifting on his face, and was pleased to think that her conversation cheered him. A little company was no doubt good for him, and she sought in her mind for some further topic of interest. Yes, of course, she had it.
"Lord Blandamer was here this afternoon. He came just like anyone else might have come, in such a very kind and condescending way to ask after me. He feared that dear Mr Sharnall's death might have been too severe a shock for us both, and, indeed, it has been a terrible blow. He was so considerate, and sat for nearly an hour—for forty-seven minutes I should say by the clock, and took tea with us in the kitchen as if he were one of the family. I never could have expected such condescension, and when he went away he left a most polite message for you, sir, to say that he was sorry that you were not in, but he hoped to call again before long."
The cloud had returned to Westray's face. If he had been the hero of a novel his brow would have been black as night; as it was he only looked rather sulky.
"I shall have to go to London to-night," he said stiffly, without acknowledging Miss Joliffe's remarks; "I shall not be back to-morrow, and may be away a few days. I will write to let you know when I shall be back."
Miss Joliffe started as if she had received an electric shock.
"To London to-night," she began—"this very night?"
"Yes," Westray said, with a dryness that would have suggested of itself that the interview was to be terminated, even if he had not added: "I shall be glad to be left alone now; I have several letters to write before I can get away."
So Miss Euphemia went to impart this strange matter to the maiden who was ex hypothesi leaning on the architect's strong arm.
"What do you think, Anastasia?" she said. "Mr Westray is going to London to-night, perhaps for some days."
"Is he?" was all her niece's comment; but there was a languor and indifference in the voice, that might have sent the thermometer of the architect's affection from boiling-point to below blood-heat, if he could have heard her speak.
Westray sat moodily for a few moments after his landlady had gone. For the first time in his life he wished he was a smoker. He wished he had a pipe in his mouth, and could pull in and puff out smoke as he had seen Sharnall do when he was moody. He wanted some work for his restless body while his restless mind was turning things over. It was the news of Lord Blandamer's visit, as on this very afternoon, that fanned smouldering thoughts into flame. This was the first time, so far as Westray knew, that Lord Blandamer had come to Bellevue Lodge without at least a formal excuse of business. With that painful effort which we use to convince ourselves of things of which we wish to be convinced in the face of all difficulties; with that blind, stumbling hope against hope with which we try to reconcile things irreconcilable, if only by so doing we can conjure away a haunting spectre, or lull to sleep a bitter suspicion; the architect had hitherto resolved to believe that if Lord Blandamer came with some frequency to Bellevue Lodge, he was only prompted to do so by a desire to keep in touch with the restoration, to follow with intelligence the expenditure of money which he was so lavishly providing. It had been the easier for Westray to persuade himself that Lord Blandamer's motives were legitimate, because he felt that the other must find a natural attraction in the society of a talented young professional man. An occasional conversation with a clever architect on things architectural, or on other affairs of common interest (for Westray was careful to avoid harping unduly on any single topic) must undoubtedly prove a relief to Lord Blandamer from the monotony of bachelor life in the country; and in such considerations Westray found a subsidiary, and sometimes he was inclined to imagine primary, interest for these visits to Bellevue Lodge.
If various circumstances had conspired of late to impugn the sufficiency of these motives, Westray had not admitted as much in his own mind; if he had been disquieted, he had constantly assured himself that disquietude was unreasonable. But now disillusion had befallen him. Lord Blandamer had visited Bellevue Lodge as it were in his own right; he had definitely abandoned the pretence of coming to see Westray; he had been drinking tea with Miss Joliffe; he had spent an hour in the kitchen with Miss Joliffe and—Anastasia. It could only mean one thing, and Westray's resolution was taken.
An object which had seemed at best but mildly desirable, became of singular value when he believed that another was trying to possess himself of it; jealousy had quickened love, duty and conscience insisted that he should save the girl from the snare that was being set for her. The great renunciation must be made; he, Westray, must marry beneath him, but before doing so he would take his mother into his confidence, though there is no record of Perseus doing as much before he cut loose Andromeda.
Meanwhile, no time must be lost; he would start this very night. The last train for London had already left, but he would walk to Cullerne Road Station and catch the night-mail from thence. He liked walking, and need take no luggage, for there were things that he could use at his mother's house. It was seven o'clock when he came to this resolve, and an hour later he had left the last house in Cullerne behind him, and entered upon his night excursion.
The line of the Roman way which connected Carauna (Carisbury) with its port Culurnum (Cullerne) is still followed by the modern road, and runs as nearly straight as may be for the sixteen miles which separate those places. About half-way between them the Great Southern main line crosses the highway at right angles, and here is Cullerne Road Station. The first half of the way runs across a flat sandy tract called Mallory Heath, where the short greensward encroaches on the road, and where the eye roaming east or west or north can discern nothing except a limitless expanse of heather, broken here and there by patches of gorse and bracken, or by clumps of touselled and wind-thinned pines and Scotch firs. The tawny-coloured, sandy, track is difficult to follow in the dark, and there are posts set up at intervals on the skirts of the way for travellers' guidance. These posts show out white against a starless night, and dark against the snow which sometimes covers the heath with a silvery sheet.
On a clear night the traveller can see the far-off lamps of the station at Cullerne Road a mile after he has left the old seaport town. They stand out like a thin line of light in the distant darkness, a line continuous at first, but afterwards resolvable into individual units of lamps as he walks further along the straight road. Many a weary wayfarer has watched those lamps hang changeless in the distance, and chafed at their immobility. They seem to come no nearer to him for all the milestones, with the distance from Hyde Park Corner graven in old figures on their lichened faces, that he has passed. Only the increasing sound of the trains tells him that he is nearing his goal, and by degrees the dull rumble becomes a clanking roar as the expresses rush headlong by. On a crisp winter day they leave behind them a trail of whitest wool, and in the night-time a fiery serpent follows them when the open furnace-door flings on the cloud a splendid radiance. But in the dead heats of midsummer the sun dries up the steam, and they speed along, the more wonderful because there is no trace to tell what power it is that drives them.
Of all these things Westray saw nothing. A soft white fog had fallen upon everything. It drifted by in delicate whirling wreaths, that seemed to have an innate motion of their own where all had been still but a minute before. It covered his clothes with a film of the finest powdery moisture that ran at a touch into heavy drops, it hung in dripping dew on his moustache, and hair, and eyebrows, it blinded him, and made him catch his breath. It had come rolling in from the sea as on that night when Mr Sharnall was taken, and Westray could hear the distant groaning of fog-horns in the Channel; and looking backwards towards Cullerne, knew from a blurred glare, now green, now red, that a vessel in the offing was signalling for a coastwise pilot. He plodded steadily forward, stopping now and then when he found his feet on the grass sward to recover the road, and rejoicing when one of the white posts assured him that he was still keeping the right direction. The blinding fog isolated him in a strange manner; it cut him off from Nature, for he could see nothing of her; it cut him off from man, for he could not have seen even a legion of soldiers had they surrounded him. This removal of outside influences threw him back upon himself, and delivered him to introspection; he began for the hundredth time to weigh his position, to consider whether the momentous step that he was taking was necessary to his ease of mind, was right, was prudent.
To make a proposal of marriage is a matter that may give the strongest-minded pause, and Westray's mind was not of the strongest. He was clever, imaginative, obstinate, scrupulous to a fault; but had not that broad outlook on life which comes of experience, nor the power and resolution to readily take a decision under difficult circumstances, and to abide by it once taken. So it was that reason made a shuttlecock of his present resolve, and half a dozen times he stopped in the road meaning to abandon his purpose, and turn back to Cullerne. Yet half a dozen times he went on, though with slow feet, thinking always, Was he right in what he was doing, was he right? And the fog grew thicker; it seemed almost to be stifling him; he could not see his hand if he held it at arm's length before his face. Was he right, was there any right or any wrong, was anything real, was not everything subjective—the creation of his own brain? Did he exist, was he himself, was he in the body or out of the body? And then a wild dismay, a horror of the darkness and the fog, seized hold of him. He stretched out his arms, and groped in the mist as if he hoped to lay hold of someone, or something, to reassure him as to his own identity, and at last a mind-panic got the better of him; he turned and started back to Cullerne.
It was only for a moment, and then reason began to recover her sway; he stopped, and sat down on the heather at the side of the road, careless that every spray was wet and dripping, and collected his thoughts. His heart was beating madly as in one that wakes from a nightmare, but he was now ashamed of his weakness and of the mental débâcle, though there had been none to see it. What could have possessed him, what madness was this? After a few minutes he was able to turn round once more, and resumed his walk towards the railway with a firm, quick step, which should prove to his own satisfaction that he was master of himself.
For the rest of his journey he dismissed bewildering questions of right and wrong, of prudence and imprudence, laying it down as an axiom that his emprise was both right and prudent, and busied himself with the more material and homely considerations of ways and means. He amused himself in attempting to fix the sum for which it would be possible for him and Anastasia to keep house, and by mentally straining to the utmost the resources at his command managed to make them approach his estimate. Another man in similar circumstances might perhaps have given himself to reviewing the chances of success in his proposal, but Westray did not trouble himself with any doubts on this point. It was a foregone conclusion that if he once offered himself Anastasia would accept him; she could not be so oblivious to the advantages which such a marriage would offer, both in material considerations and in the connection with a superior family. He only regarded the matter from his own standpoint; once he was convinced that he cared enough for Anastasia to make her an offer, then he was sure that she would accept him.
It was true that he could not, on the spur of the moment, recollect many instances in which she had openly evinced a predilection for him, but he was conscious that she thought well of him, and she was no doubt too modest to make manifest, feelings which she could never under ordinary circumstances hope to see returned. Yet he certainly had received encouragement of a quiet and unobtrusive kind, quite sufficient to warrant the most favourable conclusions. He remembered how many, many times their eyes had met when they were in one another's company; she must certainly have read the tenderness which had inspired his glances, and by answering them she had given perhaps the greatest encouragement that true modesty would permit. How delicate and infinitely gracious her acknowledgment had been, how often had she looked at him as it were furtively, and then, finding his passionate gaze upon her, had at once cast her own eyes shyly to the ground! And in his reveries he took not into reckoning, the fact that through these later weeks he had scarcely ever taken his gaze off her, so long as she was in the same room with him. It would have been strange if their eyes had not sometimes met, because she must needs now and then obey that impulse which forces us to look at those who are looking at us. Certainly, he meditated, her eyes had given him encouragement, and then she had accepted gratefully a bunch of lilies of the valley which he said lightly had been given him, but which he had really bought ad hoc at Carisbury. But, again, he ought perhaps to have reflected that it would have been difficult for her to refuse them. How could she have refused them? How could any girl under the circumstances do less than take with thanks a few lilies of the valley? To decline them would be affectation; by declining she might attach a false and ridiculous significance to a kindly act. Yes, she had encouraged him in the matter of the lilies, and if she had not worn some of them in her bosom, as he had hoped she might, that, no doubt, was because she feared to show her preference too markedly. He had noticed particularly the interest she had shown when a bad cold had confined him for a few days to the house, and this very evening had he not heard that she missed him when he was absent even for a night? He smiled at this thought, invisibly in the fog; and has not a man a right to some complacence, on whose presence in the house hang a fair maiden's peace and security? Miss Joliffe had said that Anastasia felt nervous whenever he, Westray, was away; it was very possible that Anastasia had given her aunt a hint that she would like him to be told this, and he smiled again in the fog; he certainly need have no fear of any rejection of his suit.
He had been so deeply immersed in these reassuring considerations that he walked steadily on unconscious of all exterior objects and conditions until he saw the misty lights of the station, and knew that his goal was reached. His misgivings and tergiversations had so much delayed him by the way, that it was past midnight, and the train was already due. There were no other travellers on the platform, or in the little waiting-room where a paraffin-lamp with blackened chimney struggled feebly with the fog. It was not a cheery room, and he was glad to be called back from a contemplation of a roll of texts hanging on the wall, and a bottle of stale water on the table, to human things by the entry of a drowsy official who was discharging the duties of station-master, booking-clerk, and porter all at once.
"Are you waiting for the London train, sir?" he asked in a surprised tone, that showed that the night-mail found few passengers at Cullerne Road. "She will be in now in a few minutes; have you your ticket?"
They went together to the booking-office. The station-master handed him a third-class ticket, without even asking how he wished to travel.
"Ah, thank you," Westray said, "but I think I will go first-class to-night. I shall be more likely to have a compartment to myself, and shall be less disturbed by people getting in and out."
"Certainly, sir," said the station-master, with the marked increase of respect due to a first-class passenger—"certainly, sir; please give me back the other ticket. I shall have to write you one—we do not keep them ready; we are so very seldom asked for first-class at this station."
"No, I suppose not," Westray said.
"Things happen funny," the station-master remarked while he got his pen. "I wrote one by this same train a month ago, and before that I don't think we have ever sold one since the station was opened."
"Ah," Westray said, paying little attention, for he was engaged in a new mental disputation as to whether he was really justified in travelling first-class. He had just settled that at such a life-crisis as he had now reached, it was necessary that the body should be spared fatigue in order that the mind might be as vigorous as possible for dealing with a difficult situation, and that the extra expense was therefore justified; when the station-master went on:
"Yes, I wrote a ticket, just as I might for you, for Lord Blandamer not a month ago. Perhaps you know Lord Blandamer?" he added venturously; yet with a suggestion that even the sodality of first-class travelling was not in itself a passport to so distinguished an acquaintance. The mention of Lord Blandamer's name gave a galvanic shock to Westray's flagging attention.
"Oh yes," he said, "I know Lord Blandamer."
"Do you, indeed, sir"—and respect had risen by a skip greater than any allowed in counterpoint. "Well, I wrote a ticket for his lordship by this very train not a month ago; no, it was not a month ago, for 'twas the very night the poor organist at Cullerne was took."
"Yes," said the would-be indifferent Westray; "where did Lord Blandamer come from?"
"I do not know," the station-master replied—"I do not know, sir," he repeated, with the unnecessary emphasis common to the uneducated or unintelligent.
"Was he driving?"
"No, he walked up to this station just as you might yourself. Excuse me, sir," he broke off; "here she comes."
They heard the distant thunder of the approaching train, and were in time to see the gates of the level-crossing at the end of the platform swing silently open as if by ghostly hands, till their red lanterns blocked the Cullerne Road.
No one got out, and no one but Westray got in; there was some interchanging of post-office bags in the fog, and then the station-master-booking-clerk-porter waved a lamp, and the train steamed away. Westray found himself in a cavernous carriage, of which the cloth seats were cold and damp as the lining of a coffin. He turned up the collar of his coat, folded his arms in a Napoleonic attitude, and threw himself back into a corner to think. It was curious—it was very curious. He had been under the impression that Lord Blandamer had left Cullerne early on the night of poor Sharnall's accident; Lord Blandamer had told them at Bellevue Lodge that he was going away by the afternoon train when he left them. Yet here he was at Cullerne Road at midnight, and if he had not come from Cullerne, whence had he come? He could not have come from Fording, for from Fording he would certainly have taken the train at Lytchett. It was curious, and while he was so thinking he fell asleep.