The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter II

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When Mr. Cardus left the sitting-room where he had been talking to Ernest, he passed down a passage in the rambling old house which led him into a courtyard. On the farther side of the yard, which was walled in, stood a neat red-brick building one story high, consisting of two rooms and a passage. On to this building were attached a series of low green-houses, and against the wall at the farther end of these houses was a lean-to in which stood the boiler that supplied the pipes with hot water. The little red-brick building was Mr. Cardus's office, for he was a lawyer by profession; the long tail of glass behind it were his orchid-houses, for orchid-growing was his sole amusement. The tout ensemble, office and orchid-houses, seemed curiously out of place in the grey and ancient courtyard where they stood, looking as they did on to the old one-storied house, scarred by the passage of centuries of tempestuous weather. Some such idea seemed to strike Mr. Cardus as he closed the door behind him, preparatory to crossing the courtyard.

“Queer contrast,” he muttered to himself; “very queer. Something like that between Reginald Cardus, Esquire, Misanthrope, of Dum's Ness, and Mr. Reginald Cardus, Solicitor, Chairman of the Stokesly Board of Guardians, Bailiff of Kesterwick, &c. And yet in both cases they are part of the same establishment. Case of old and new style!”

Mr. Cardus did not make his way straight to the office. He struck off to the right, and entered the long line of glasshouses, walking up from house to house, till he reached the compartment where the temperate sorts were placed to bloom, which was connected with his office by a glass door. Through this last he walked softly, with a cat-like step, till he reached the door, where he paused to observe a large coarse man, who was standing at the far end of the room, looking out intently on the courtyard.

“Ah, my friend,” he said to himself, “so the shoe is beginning to pinch. Well, it is time.” Then he pushed the door softly open, passed into the room with the same cat-like step, closed it, and, seating himself at his writing-table, took up a pen. Apparently the coarse-looking man at the window was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to hear him, for he still stood staring into space.

“Well, Mr. de Talor,” said the lawyer presently, in his soft, jerky voice, “I am at your service.”

The person addressed started violently, and turned sharply round. “Good 'eavens, Cardus, how did you get in?”

“Through the door, of course; do you suppose I came down the chimney?”

“It's very strange, Cardus, but I never 'eard you come. You've given me quite a start.”

Mr. Cardus laughed, a hard little laugh. “You were too much occupied with your own thoughts, Mr. de Talor. I fear that they are not pleasant ones. Can I help you?”

“How do you know that my thoughts are not pleasant, Cardus? I never said so.”

“If we lawyers waited for our clients to tell us all their thoughts, Mr. de Talor, it would often take us a long time to reach the truth. We have to read their faces, or even their backs sometimes. You have no idea of how much expression a back is capable, if you make such things your study; yours, for instance, looks very uncomfortable to-day: nothing gone wrong, I hope?”

“No, Cardus, no,” answered Mr. de Talor, dropping the subject of backs, which was, he felt, beyond him; “that is, nothing much, merely a question of business, on which I have come to ask your advice as a shrewd man.”

“My best advice is at your service, Mr. de Talor: what is it?”

“Well, Cardus, it's this.” And Mr. de Talor seated his portly frame in an easy-chair, and turned his broad, vulgar face towards the lawyer. “It's about the railway-grease business——”

“Which you own up in Manchester?”

“Yes, that's it.”

“Well, then, it ought to be a satisfactory subject to talk of. It pays hand over fist, does it not?”

“No, Cardus, that is just the point: it did pay, it don't now.”

“How's that?”

“Well, you see, when my father took out the patent, and started the business, his 'ouse was the only 'ouse on the market, and he made a pot, and I don't mind telling you, I've made a pot too; but now, what do you think?—there's a beggarly firm called Rastrick &Codley that took out a new patent last year, and is underselling us with a better stuff at a cheaper price than we can turn ours out.”

“Well!”

“Well, we've lowered our price to theirs, but we are doing business at a loss. We hoped to burst them, but they don't burst: there's somebody backing them, confound them, for Rastrick &Codley ain't worth a sixpence. Who it is the Lord only knows. I don't believe they know themselves.”

“That is unfortunate, but what about it?”

“Just this, Cardus. I want to ask your advice about selling out. Our credit is good, and we could sell up for a large pile—not so large as we could have done, but still large—and I don't know whether to sell or hold.”

Mr. Cardus looked thoughtful. “It is a difficult point, Mr. de Talor, but for myself I am always against caving in. The other firm may smash after all, and then you would be sorry. If you were to sell now you would probably make their fortunes, which I suppose you don't want to do.”

“No, indeed.”

“Then you are a very wealthy man; you are not dependent on this grease business. Even if things were to go wrong, you have all your landed property here at Ceswick's Ness to fall back on. I should hold, if I were you, even if it was at a loss for a time, and trust to the fortune of war.”

Mr. de Talor gave a sigh of relief. “That's my view, too, Cardus. You are a shrewd man, and I am glad you jump with me. Damn Rastrick & Codley, say I!”

“O yes, damn them by all means,” answered the lawyer, with a smile, as he rose to show his client to the door.

On the farther side of the passage was another door, with a glass top to it, which gave on to a room furnished after the ordinary fashion of a clerk's office. Opposite this door Mr. de Talor stopped to look at a man who was within, sitting at a table writing. The man was old, of large size, very powerfully built, and dressed with extreme neatness in hunting costume—boots, breeches, spurs and all. Over his large head grew tufts of coarse grey hair, which hung down in dishevelled locks about his face, giving him a wild appearance, that was added to by a curious distortion of the mouth. His left arm, too, hung almost helpless by his side.

Mr. Cardus laughed as he followed his visitor's gaze. “A curious sort of clerk, eh?” he said. “Mad, dumb, and half-paralysed—not many lawyers could show such another.”

Mr. de Talor glanced at the object of their observation uneasily.

“If he's so mad, how can he do clerk's work?” he asked.

“O, he's only mad in a way; he copies beautifully.”

“He has quite lost his memory, I suppose?” said de Talor, with another uneasy glance.

“Yes,” answered Mr. Cardus, with a smile, “he has. Perhaps it is as well. He remembers nothing now but his delusions.”

Mr. de Talor looked relieved. “He has been with you many years now, hasn't he, Cardus?”

“Yes, a great many.”

“Why did you bring him 'ere at all?”

“Did I never tell you the story? Then if you care to step back into my office I will. It is not a long one. You remember when our friend”—he nodded towards the office—“kept the hounds, and they used to call him 'Hard-riding Atterleigh'?”

“Yes, I remember, and ruined himself over them, like a fool.”

“And of course you remember Mary Atterleigh, his daughter, with whom we were all in love when we were young?”

Mr. de Talor's broad cheek took a deeper shade of crimson as he nodded assent.

“Then,” went on Mr. Cardus, in a voice meant to be indifferent, but which now and again gave traces of emotion, “you will also remember that I was the fortunate man, and, with her father's consent, was engaged to be married to Mary Atterleigh so soon as I could show him that my income reached a certain sum.” Here Mr. Cardus paused a moment, and then continued, “But I had to go to America about the great Norwich bank case, and it was a long job, and travelling was slow in those days. When I got back, Mary was—married to a man called Jones, a friend of yours, Mr. de Talor. He was staying at your house, Ceswick's Ness, when he met her. But perhaps you are better acquainted with that part of the tale than I am.”

Mr. de Talor was looking very uneasy again now.

“No, I know nothing about it. Jones fell in love with her like the rest, and the next I heard of it was that they were to be married. It was rather rough on you, eh, Cardus? but, Lord, you shouldn't have been fool enough to trust her.”

Mr. Cardus smiled, a bitter smile. “Yes, it was a little rough, but that has nothing to do with my story. The marriage did not turn out well; a curious fatality pursued all who had any hand in it. Mary had two children; and then did the best thing she could do—died of shame and sorrow. Jones, who was rich, went fraudulently bankrupt, and ended by committing suicide. 'Hard-riding Atterleigh' flourished for a while. Then lost his money on horses and a ship-building speculation, and got a paralytic stroke that took away all his speech and most of his reason. I brought him here to save him from the madhouse.”

“That was kind of you, Cardus.”

“Oh no, he is worth his keep, and besides, he is poor Mary's father. He is under the fixed impression that I am the devil; but that does not matter.”

“You've got her children, too, eh?”

“Yes, I have adopted them. The girl reminds me of her mother, though she will never have her mother's looks. The boy is like old Atterleigh. I do not care about the boy. But, thank God, they are neither of them like their father.”

“So you knew Jones?” said de Talor, sharply.

“Yes, I met him after his marriage. Oddly enough, I was with him a few minutes before he destroyed himself. There, Mr. de Talor, I will not detain you any longer. I thought that you could perhaps tell me something of the details of Mary's marriage. The story has a fascination for me, its results upon my own life have been so far-reaching. I am sure that I am not at the bottom of it yet. Mary wrote to me when she was dying, and hinted at something that I cannot understand. There was somebody behind who arranged the matter, who assisted Jones' suit. Well, well, I shall find it all out in time, and whoever it is will no doubt pay the price of his wickedness, like the others. Providence has strange ways, Mr. de Talor, but in the end it is a terrible avenger. What! are you going? Queer talk for a lawyer's office, isn't it?”

Here Mr. de Talor rose, looking pale, and, merely nodding to Mr. Cardus, left the room.

The lawyer watched him till the door had closed, when suddenly his whole face changed. The white eyebrows drew close together, the delicate features worked, and in the soft eyes there shone a look of hate. He clenched his fists, and shook them towards the door.

“You liar, you hound!” he said aloud. “God grant that I may live long enough to do to you as I have done to them! One a suicide, and one a paralytic madman; you—you shall be a beggar, if it takes me twenty years to make you so. Yes, that will hit you hardest. O Mary! Mary! dead and dishonoured through you, you scoundrel! O my darling, shall I ever find you again?”

And this strange man dropped his head upon the desk before him, and groaned.