Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 37

Lord Hartfield Refuses a Fortune.

A honeymoon among lakes and mountains, amidst the gorgeous confusion of Borrowdale, in a little world of wild, strange loveliness, shut in and isolated from the prosaic outer world by the vast and towering masses of Skiddaw and Blencathara — a world of one’s own, as it were, a world steeped in romance and poetry, dear to the souls of poets. There are many such honeymoons every summer; indeed, the mountain paths, the waterfalls and lakes swarm with happy lovers; and this land of hills and waters seems to have been made expressly for honeymoon travellers; yet never went truer lovers wandering by lake and torrent, by hill and valley, than those two whose brief honeymoon was now drawing to a close.

It was altogether a magical time for Mary, this dawn of a new life. The immensity of her happiness almost frightened her. She could hardly believe in it, or trust in its continuance.

‘Am I really, really, really your wife?’ she asked on their last day, bending down to speak to her husband, as he led her pony up the rough ways of Skiddaw. ‘It is all so dreadfully like a dream.’

‘Thank God, it is the very truth,’ answered Lord Hartfield, looking fondly at the fresh young face, brightened by the summer wind, which faintly stirred the auburn hair under the neat little hat.

‘And am I actually a Countess? I don’t care about it one little bit, you know, except as a stupendous joke. If you were to tell me that you had been only making fun of poor grandmother and me, and that those diamonds are glass, and you only plain John Hammond, it wouldn’t make the faintest difference. Indeed, it would be a weight off my mind. It is an awfully oppressive thing to be a Countess.’

‘I’m sorry I cannot relieve you of the burden. The law of the land has made you Lady Hartfield; and I hope you are preparing your mind for the duties of your position.’

‘It is very dreadful,’ sighed Mary. ‘If her ladyship were as well and as active as she was when first you came to Fellside, she could have helped me; but now there will be no one, except you. And you will help me, won’t you Jack?’

‘With all my heart.’

‘My own true Jack,’ with a little fervent squeeze of his sunburnt hand. ‘In society I suppose I shall have to call you Hartfield. “Hartfield, please ring the bell.” “Give me a footstool, Hartfield.” How odd it sounds. I shall be blurting out the old dear name.’

‘I don’t think it will much matter. It will pass for one of Lady Hartfield’s little ways. Every woman is supposed to have little ways, don’t you know. One has a little way of dropping her friends; another has a little way of not paying her dressmaker; another’s little way is to take too much champagne. I hope Lady Hartfield’s little way will be her devotion to her husband.’

‘I’m afraid I shall end by being a nuisance to you, for I shall love you ridiculously,’ answered Mary, gaily; ‘and from what you have told me about society, it seems to me that there can be nothing so unfashionable as an affectionate wife. Will you mind my being quite out of fashion, Jack?’

‘I should very much object to your being in the fashion.’

‘Then I am happy. I don’t think it is in my nature to become a woman of fashion; although I have cured myself, for your sake, of being a hoyden. I had so schooled myself for what I thought our new life was to be; so trained myself to be a managing economical wife, that I feel quite at sea now that I am to be mistress of a house in Grosvenor Square and a place in Kent. Still, I will bear with it all; yes, even endure the weight of those diamonds for your sake.’

She laughed, and he laughed. They were quite alone among the hills — hardy mountaineers both — and they could be as foolish as they liked. She rested her head upon his shoulder, and he and she and the pony made one as they climbed the hill, close together.

‘Our last day,’ sighed Mary, as they went down again, after a couple of blissful hours in that wild world between earth and sky. ‘I shall be glad to go back to poor grandmother, who must be sadly lonely; but it is so sweet to be quite alone with you.’

They left the Lodore Hotel in an open carriage, after luncheon next day, and posted to Fellside, where they arrived just in time to assist at Lady Maulevrier’s afternoon tea. She received them both with warm affection, and made Hartfield sit close beside her sofa; and every now and then, in the pauses of their talk, she laid her wasted and too delicate fingers upon the young man’s strong brown hand, with a caressing gesture.

‘You can never know how sweet it is to me to be able to love you,’ she said tenderly. ‘You can never know how my heart yearned to you from the very first, and how hard it was to keep myself in check and not be too kind to you. Oh, Hartfield, you should have told me the truth. You should not have come here under false colours.’

‘Should I not, Lady Maulevrier? It was my only chance of being loved for my own sake; or, at least of knowing that I was so loved. If I had come with my rank and my fortune in my hand, as it were — one of the good matches of the year — what security could I ever have felt in the disinterested love of the girl who chose me? As plain John Hammond I wooed and was rejected; as plain John Hammond I wooed and won; and the prize which I so won is a pearl above price. Not for worlds, were the last year to be lived over again, would I have one day of my life altered.’

‘Well, I suppose I ought to be satisfied, I wanted you for Lesbia, and I have got you for Mary. Best of all, I have got you for myself. Ronald Hollister’s son is mine; he is of my kin; he belongs to me; he will not forsake me in life; he will be near me, God grant, when I die.’

‘Dear Lady Maulevrier, as far as in me lies, I will be to you as a son,’ said Lord Hartfield, very solemnly, stooping to kiss her hand.

Mary came away from her tea-table to embrace her grandmother.

‘It makes me so happy to have won a little of your regard,’ she murmured, ‘and to know that I have married a man whom you can love.’

‘Of course you have heard of Lesbia’s engagement?’ Lady Maulevrier said presently, when they were taking their tea.

‘Maulevrier wrote to us about it.’

‘To us.’ How nice it sounded, thought Mary, as if they were a firm, and a letter written to one was written to both.

‘And do you know this Mr. Smithson?’

‘Not intimately. I have met him at the Carlton.’

‘I am told that he is very much esteemed by your party, and that he is very likely to get a peerage when this Ministry goes out of office.’

‘That is not improbable. Peerages are to be had if a man is rich enough; and Smithson is supposed to be inordinately rich.’

‘I hope he has character as well as money,’ said Lady Maulevrier, gravely. ‘But do you think a man can become inordinately rich in a short time, with unblemished honour?’

‘We are told that nothing is impossible,’ answered Hartfield. ‘Faith can remove a mountain; only one does not often see it done. However, I believe Mr. Smithson’s character is fairly good as millionaires go. We do not inquire too closely into these things nowadays.’

Lady Maulevrier sighed and held her peace. She remembered the day when she had protested vehemently, passionately, against Lesbia’s marriage with a poor man. And now she had an unhappy feeling about Mr. Smithson’s wealth, a doubt, a dread that all might not be well with those millions, that some portion of that golden tide might flow from impure sources. She had lived remote from the world, but she had read the papers diligently, and she knew how often the splendour of commercial wealth has been suddenly obscured behind a black cloud of obloquy. She could not rejoice heartily at the idea of Lesbia’s engagement.

‘I am to see the man early in August,’ she said, as if she were talking of a butler. ‘I hope I may like him. Lady Kirkbank tells me it is a brilliant marriage, and I must take her word. What can I do for my granddaughter — a useless log — a prisoner in two rooms?’

‘It is very hard,’ murmured Mary, tenderly, ‘but I do not see any reason why Lesbia should not be happy. She likes a brilliant life; and Mr. Smithson can give her as much gaiety and variety as she can possibly desire. And, after all, yachts, and horses, and villas, and diamonds are nice things.’

‘They are the things for which half the world is ready to cheat or murder the other half,’ said Lady Maulevrier, bitterly. She had told herself long ago that wealth was power, and she had sacrificed many things, her own peace, her own conscience among them, in order that her children and grandchildren should be rich; and, knowing this, she felt it ill became her to be scrupulous, and to inquire too, closely as to the sources of Mr. Smithson’s wealth. He was rich, and the world had no fault to find with him. He had attended the last levée. He went into reputable society. And he could give Lesbia all those things which the world calls good.

Fräulein Müller had packed her heavy old German trunks, and had gone back to the Heimath, laden with presents of all kinds from Lady Maulevrier; so Mary and her husband felt as if Fellside was really their own. They dined with her ladyship, and left her for the night an hour after dinner; and then they went down to the gardens, and roamed about in the twilight, and talked, and talked, and talked, as only true lovers can talk, be they Strephon and Daphne in life’s glad morning, or grey-haired Darby and Joan; and lastly they went down to the hike, and rowed about in the moonlight, and talked of King Arthur’s death, and of that mystic sword, Excalibur, ‘wrought by the lonely maiden of the lake.’

They spent three happy days in wandering about the neighbourhood, revisiting in the delicious freedom of their wedded life those spots which they had seen together, when Mary was still in bondage, and the eye of propriety, as represented by Miss Müller, was always upon her. Now they were free to go where they pleased — to linger where they liked — they belonged to each other, and were under no other dominion.

The dogcart, James Steadman’s dogcart, which he had rarely used during the last six months, was put in requisition and Lord Hartfield drove his wife about the country. They went to the Langdale Pikes, and to Dungeon Ghyll; and, standing beside the waterfall, Mary told her husband how miserable she had felt on that very spot a little less than a year ago, when she believed that he thought her plain and altogether horrid. Whereupon he had to console her with many kisses and sweet words, for the bygone pain on her part, the neglect of his.

‘I was a wretch,’ he said, ‘blind, besotted, imbecile.’

‘No, no, no. Lesbia is very lovely — and I could not expect you would care for me till she was gone away. How glad I am that she went,’ added Mary, naïvely.

The sky, which had been cloudless all day, began to darken as Lord Hartfield drove back to Fellside, and Mary drew a little closer to the driver’s elbow, as if for shelter from an impending tempest.

‘You have no waterproof, of course,’ he said, looking down at her, as the first big drops of a thunder shower dashed upon the splash-board. ‘No young woman in the Lake country would think of being without a waterproof.’

Mary was duly provided, and with the help of the groom put herself into a snug little tartan Inverness, while Hartfield sent the cart spinning along twelve miles an hour.

They were at Fellside before the storm developed its full power, but the sky was leaden, the landscape dull and blotted, the atmosphere heavy and stifling. The thunder grumbled hoarsely, far away yonder in the wild gorges of Borrowdale; and Mary and her husband made up their minds that the tempest would come before midnight.

Lady Maulevrier was suffering from the condition of the atmosphere. She had gone to bed, prostrate with a neuralgic headache, and had given orders that no one but her maid should go near her. So Lord Hartfield and his wife dined by themselves, in the room where Mary had eaten so many uninteresting dinners tête-à-tête with Fräulein; and in spite of the storm which howled, pelted, and lightened every now and then, Mary felt as if she were in Paradise.

There was no chance of going out after dinner. The lake looked like a pool of ink, the mountains were monsters of dark and threatening aspect, the rain rattled against the windows, and ran from the verandah in miniature water-spouts. There was nothing to do but stay in doors, in the sultry, dusky house.

‘Let us go to my boudoir,’ said Mary. ‘Let me enjoy the full privilege of having a boudoir — my very own room. Wasn’t it too good of grandmother to have it made so smart for me?’

‘Nothing can be too good for my Mary,’ answered her husband, still in the doting stage, ‘but it was very nice of her ladyship — and the room is charming.’

Delightful as the new boudoir might be, they dawdled in the picture gallery, that long corridor on which all the upper rooms opened, and at one end of which was the door of Lady Maulevrier’s bedroom, at right angles with that red-cloth door, which was never opened, except to give egress or ingress to James Steadman, who kept the key of it, as if the old part of Fellside House had been an enchanted castle. Lord Hartfield had not forgotten that summer midnight last year, when his meditations were disturbed by a woman’s piercing cry. He thought of it this evening, as Mary and he lowered their voices on drawing near Lady Maulevrier’s door. She was asleep within there now, perhaps, that strange old woman; and at any moment an awful shriek, as of a soul in mortal agony, might startle them in the midst of their bliss.

The lamps were lighted below; but this upper part of the house was wrapped in the dull grey twilight of a stormy evening. A single lamp burned dimly at the further end of the corridor, and all the rest was shadow.

Mary and her husband walked up and down, talking in subdued tones. He was explaining the necessity of his being in London next week, and promising to come back to Fellside directly his business at the House was over.

‘It will be delightful to read your speeches,’ said Mary; ‘but I am silly and selfish enough to wish you were a country squire, with no business in London. And yet I don’t wish that either, for I am intensely proud of you.’

‘And some day, before we are much older, you will sit in your robes in the peeress’s gallery.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ cried Mary. ‘I should make a fool of myself, somehow. I should look like a housemaid in borrowed plumes. Remember, I have no Anstand— I have been told so all my life.’

‘You will be one of the prettiest peeresses who ever sat in that gallery, and the purest, and truest, and dearest,’ protested her lover-husband.

‘Oh, if I am good enough for you, I am satisfied. I married you, and not the House of Lords. But I am afraid your friends will all say, “Hartfield, why in heaven’s name did you marry that uncultivated person?” Look!’

She stopped suddenly, with her hand on her husband’s arm. It was growing momentarily darker in the corridor. They were at the end near the lamp, and that other end by Lady Maulevrier’s door was in deeper darkness, yet not too dark for Lord Hartfield to see what it was to which Mary pointed.

The red-cloth door was open, and a faint glimmer of light showed within. A man was standing in the corridor, a small, shrunken figure, bent and old.

‘It is Steadman’s uncle,’ said Mary ‘Do let me go and speak to him, poor, poor old man.’

‘The madman!’ exclaimed Hartfield. ‘No, Mary; go to your room at once. I’ll get him back to his own den.’

‘But he is not mad — at any rate, he is quite harmless. Let me just say a few words to him. Surely I am safe with you.’

Lord Hartfield was not inclined to dispute that argument; indeed, he felt himself strong enough to protect his wife from all the lunatics in Bedlam. He went towards the end of the corridor, keeping Mary well behind him; but Mary did not mean to lose the opportunity of renewing her acquaintance with Steadman’s uncle.

‘I hope you are better, poor old soul,’ she murmured, gently, lovingly almost, nestling at her husband’s side.

‘What, is it you?’ cried the old man, tremulous with joy.

‘Oh, I have been looking for you — looking — looking — waiting, waiting for you. I have been hoping for you every hour and every minute. Why didn’t you come to me, cruel girl?’

‘I tried with all my might,’ said Mary, ‘but people blocked up the door in the stables, and they wouldn’t let me go to you; and I have been rather busy for the last fortnight,’ added Mary, blushing in the darkness, ‘I— I— am married to this gentleman.’

‘Married! Ah, that is a good thing. He will take care of you, if he is an honest man.’

‘I thought he was an honest man, but he has turned out to be an earl,’ answered Mary, proudly. ‘My husband is Lord Hartfield.’ ‘Hartfield — Hartfield,’ the old man repeated, feebly. ‘Surely I have heard that name before.’

There was no violence in his manner, nothing but imbecility: so Lord Hartfield made up his mind that Mary was right, and that the old man was quite harmless, worthy of all compassion and kindly treatment.

This was the same old man whom he had met on the Fell in the bleak March morning. There was no doubt in his mind about that, although he could hardly see the man’s face in the shadowy corridor.

‘Come,’ said the man, ‘come with me, my dear. You forgot me, but I have not forgotten you. I mean to leave you my fortune. Come with me, and I’ll show you your legacy. It is all for you — every rupee — every jewel.’

This word rupee startled Lord Hartfield. It had a strange sound from the lips of a Westmoreland peasant.

‘Come, child, come!’ said the man impatiently. ‘Come and see what I have left you in my will. I make a new will every day, but I leave everything to you — every will is in your favour; But if you are married you had better have your legacy at once. Your husband is strong enough to take care of you and your fortune.’

‘Poor old man,’ whispered Mary; ‘pray let us humour him.’

It was the usual madman’s fancy, no doubt. Boundless wealth, exalted rank, sanctity, power — these things all belong to the lunatic. He is the lord of creation, and, fed by such fancies, he enjoys flashes of wild happiness in the midst of his woe.

‘Come, come, both of you,’ said the old man, eagerly, breathless with impatience.

He led the way across the sacred threshold, looking back, beckoning to them with his wasted old hand, and Mary for the first time in her life entered that house which had seemed to her from her very childhood as a temple of silence and mystery. The passage was dimly lighted by a little lamp on a bracket. The old man crept along stealthily, looking back, with a face full of cunning, till he came to a broad landing, from which an old staircase, with massive oak banisters, led down to the square hall below. The ceilings were low, the passages were narrow. All things in the house were curiously different from that spacious mansion which Lady Maulevrier had built for herself.

A door on the landing stood ajar. The old man pushed it open and went in, followed by Mary and her husband.

They both expected to see a room humble almost to poverty — an iron bedstead, perhaps, and such furniture as the under servants in a nobleman’s household are privileged to enjoy. Both were alike surprised at the luxury of the apartment they entered, and which was evidently reserved exclusively for Steadman’s uncle.

It was a sitting-room. The furniture was old-fashioned, but almost as handsome as any in Lady Maulevrier’s apartments. There was a large sofa of most comfortable shape, covered with dark red velvet, and furnished with pillows and foot rugs, which would have satisfied a Sybarite of the first water. Beside the sofa stood a hookah, with all appliances in the Oriental fashion; and half a dozen long cherry-wood pipes neatly arranged above the mantelpiece showed that Mr. Steadman’s uncle was a smoker of a luxurious type.

In the centre of the room stood a large writing table, with a case of pigeon-holes at the back, a table which would not have disgraced a Prime Minister’s study. A pair of wax candles, in tall silver candlesticks, lighted this table, which was littered with papers, in a wild confusion that too plainly indicated the condition of the owner’s mind. The oak floor was covered with Persian prayer rugs, old and faded, but of the richest quality. The window curtains were dark red velvet; and through an open doorway Mary and her husband saw a corresponding luxury in the arrangements of the adjoining bedroom.

The whole thing seemed wild and strange as a fairy tale. The weird and wizened old man, grinning and nodding his head at them. The handsome room, rich with dark, subdued colour, in the dim light of four wax candles, two on the table, two on the mantelpiece. The perfume of stephanotis and tea-roses, blended faintly with the all-pervading odour of latakia and Turkish attar. All was alike strange, bearing in mind that this old man was a recipient of Lady Maulevrier’s charity, a hanger-on upon a confidential servant, who might be supposed to be generously treated if he had the run of his teeth and the shelter of a decent garret. Verily, there was something regal in such hospitality as this, accorded to a pauper lunatic.

Where was Steadman, the alert, the watchful, all this time? Mary wondered. They had met no one. The house was as mute as if it were under the spell of a magician. It was like that awful chamber in the Arabian story, where the young man found the magic horse, and started on his fatal journey. Mary felt as if here, too, there, must be peril; here, too, fate was working.

The old man went to the writing table, pushed aside the papers, and then stooped down and turned a mysterious handle or winch under the knee-hole, and the writing-desk moved slowly on one side, while the pigeon-holes sank, and a deep well full of secret drawers was laid open.

From one of these secret drawers the old man took a bunch of keys, nodding, chuckling, muttering to himself as he groped for them with tremulous hand.

‘Steadman is uncommonly clever — thinks he knows everything — but he doesn’t know the trick of this table. I could hide a regiment of Sepoys in this table, my dear. Well, well, perhaps not Sepoys — too big, too big — but I could hide all the State papers of the Presidency. There are drawers enough for that.’

Hartfield watched him intently, with thoughtful brow. There was a mystery here, a mystery of the deepest dye; and it was for him — it must needs be his task, welcome or unwelcome, to unravel it.

This was the Maulevrier skeleton.

‘Now, come with me,’ said the old man, clutching Mary’s wrist, and drawing her towards the half-open door leading into the bedroom.

She had a feeling of shrinking, for there was something uncanny about the old man, something that might be life or death, might belong to this world or the next; but she had no fear. In the first place, she was courageous by nature, and in the second her husband was with her, a tower of strength, and she could know no fear while he was at her side.

The strange old man led the way across his bedroom to an inner chamber, oak pannelled, with very little furniture, but holding much treasure in the shape of trunks, portmanteaux — all very old and dusty — and two large wooden cases, banded with iron.

Before one of these cases the man knelt down, and applied a key to the padlock which fastened it. He gave the candle to Lord Hartfield to hold, and then opened the box. It seemed to be full of books, which he began to remove, heaping them on the floor beside him; and it was not till he had cleared away a layer of dingy volumes that he came to a large metal strong box, so heavy that he could not lift it out of the chest.

Slowly, tremulously, and with quickened breathing, he unlocked the box where it was, and raised the lid.

‘Look,’ he said eagerly, ‘this is her legacy — this is my little girl’s legacy.’

Lord Hartfield bent down and looked at the old man’s treasure, by the wavering light of the candle; Mary looking over his shoulder, breathless with wonder.

The strong box was divided into compartments. One, and the largest, was filled with rouleaux of coin, packed as closely as possible. The others contained jewels, set and unset — diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires — which flashed back the flickering flame of the candle with glintings of rainbow light.

‘These are all for her — all — all,’ exclaimed the old man. ‘They are worth a prince’s ransom. Those rouleaux are all gold; those gems are priceless. They were the dowry of a princess. But they are hers now — yes, my dear, they are yours — because you spoke sweetly, and smiled prettily, and were very good to a lonely old man — and because you have my mother’s face, dear, a smile that recalls the days of my youth. Lift out the box and take it away with you, if you are strong enough — you, you,’ he said, touching Lord Hartfield. ‘Hide it somewhere — keep it from her. Let no one know — no one except your wife and you must be in the secret.’

‘My dear sir, it is out of the question — impossible that my wife or I should accept one of those coins — or the smallest of those jewels.’

‘Why not, in the devil’s name?’

‘First and foremost, we do not know how you came in possession of them; secondly, we do not know who you are.’

‘They came to me fairly enough — bequeathed to me by one who had the right to leave them. Would you have had all that gold left for an adventurer to wallow in?’

‘You must keep your treasure, sir, however it may have come to you,’ answered Lord Hartfield firmly. ‘My wife cannot take upon herself the burden of a single gold coin — least of all from a stranger. Remember, sir, to us your possession of this wealth — nay, your whole existence — is a mystery.’

‘You want to know who I am?’ said the old man drawing himself up, with a sudden hauteur which was not without dignity, despite his shrunken form and grotesque appearence. ‘Well, sir. I am ——’

He checked himself abruptly, and looked round the room with a scared expression.

‘No, no, no,’ he muttered; ‘caution, caution! They have not done with me yet; she warned me — they are lying in wait; I mustn’t walk into their trap.’ And then turning to Lord Hartfield, he said, haughtily, ‘I shall not condescend to tell you who I am, sir. You must know that I am a gentleman, and that is enough for you. There is my gift to your wife’— pointing to the chest —‘take it or leave it.’

‘I shall leave it, sir, with all due respect.’

A frightful change came over the old man’s face at this determined refusal. His eyes glowered at Lord Hartfield under the heavy scowling brows; his bloodless lips worked convulsively.

‘Do you take me for a thief?’ he exclaimed. ‘Are you afraid to touch my gold — that gold for which men and women sell their souls, blast their lives with shame, and pain, and dishonour, all the world over? Do you stand aloof from it — refuse to touch it, as if it were infected? And you, too, girl! Have you no sense? Are you an idiot?’

‘I can do nothing against my husband’s wish,’ Mary answered, quietly; ‘and, indeed, there is no need for us to take your money. We are rich without it. Please leave that chest to a hospital. It will be ever so much better than giving it to us.’

‘You told me you were going to marry a poor man?’

‘I know. But he cheated me, and turned out to be a rich man. He was a horrid impostor,’ said Mary, drawing closer to her husband, and smiling up at him.

The old man flung down the lid of his strong box, which shut with a sonorous clang. He locked it, and put the key in his pocket.

‘I have done with you.’ he said. ‘You can go your ways, both of you. Fools, fools, fools! The world is peopled with rogues and fools; and, by heaven, I would rather have to do with the rogues!’

He flung himself into an arm-chair, one of the few objects of furniture in the room, and left them to find their way back alone.

‘Good-night, sir,’ said Lord Hartfield; but the old man made no reply. He sat frowning sullenly.

‘Good-night, sir,’ said Mary, in her gentle voice, breathing infinite pity.

‘Good-night, child,’ he growled. ‘I am sorry you have married an ass.’

This was more than Mary could stand, and she was about to reply with some acrimony, when her husband put his hand upon her lips and hurried her away.

On the landing they met Mrs. Steadman, a stout, commonplace person, who always had the same half-frightened look, as of one who lived in the shadow of an abiding terror, obviously cowed and brow beaten by her husband, according to the Fellside household.

At sight of Lord Hartfield and his wife she looked a little more frightened than usual.

‘Goodness gracious, Lady Mary! how ever did you come here?’ she gasped, not yet having quite realised the fact that Mary had been promoted.

‘We came to please Steadman’s uncle — he brought us in here,’ Mary answered, quietly.

‘But where did you find him?’

‘In the corridor — just by her ladyship’s room.’

‘Then he must have taken the key out of Steadman’s pocket, or Steadman must have left it about somewhere,’ muttered Mrs. Steadman, as if explaining the matter to herself, rather than to Mary. ‘My poor husband is not the man he was. And so you met him in the corridor, and he brought you in here. Poor old gentleman! He gets madder and madder every day.’

‘There is method in his madness,’ said Lord Hartfield. ‘He talked very much like sanity just now. Has your husband had the charge of him long?’

Mrs. Steadman answered somewhat confusedly.

‘A goodish time, sir. I can’t quite exactly say — time passes so quiet in a place like this. One hardly keeps count of the years.’

‘Forty years, perhaps?’

Mrs. Steadman blenched under Lord Hartfield’s steadfast look — a look which questioned more searchingly than his words.

‘Forty years,’ she repeated, with a faint laugh. ‘Oh, dear no, sir, not a quarter as long. It isn’t so many years, after all, since Steadman’s poor old uncle went a little queer in his head; and Steadman, having such a quiet home here, and plenty of spare room, made bold to ask her ladyship if he might give the poor old man a home, where he would be in nobody’s way.’

‘And the poor old man seems to have a very luxurious home,’ answered Lord Hartfield. ‘Pray when and where did Mr. Steadman’s uncle learn to smoke a hookah?’

Simple as the question was, it proved too much for Mrs. Steadman. She only shook her head, and faltered some unintelligible reply.

‘Where is your husband?’ asked Lord Hartfield: ‘I should like to have a little talk with him, if he is disengaged.’

‘He is not very well, my lord,’ answered Mrs. Steadman. ‘He has been ailing off and on for the last six months, but I couldn’t get him to see the doctor, or to tell her ladyship that he was in bad health. And about a week ago he broke down altogether, and fell into a kind of drowsy state. He keeps about, and he does his work pretty much the same as usual, but I can see that it’s too much for him. If you like to come downstairs I can let you through the lower door into the hall; and if he should have woke up since I have left him he’ll be at your lordship’s service. But I’d rather not wake him out of his sleep.’

‘There is no occasion. What I have to say will keep till to-morrow.’

Lord Hartfield and his wife followed Mrs. Steadman downstairs to the low dark hall, where an old eight-day clock ticked with hoarse and solemn heat, and a fine stag’s head over each doorway gave evidence of some former Haselden’s sporting tastes. The door of a small panelled parlour stood half-way open; and within the room Lord Hartfield saw James Steadman asleep in an arm-chair by the fire, which burned as brightly as if it had been Christmas time.

‘He was so chilly and shivery this afternoon that I was obliged to light a fire,’ said Mrs. Steadman.

‘He seems to be sleeping heavily,’ said Hartfield. ‘Don’t awaken him. I’ll see him to-morrow morning before I go to London.’

‘He sleeps half the day just as heavy as that, my lord,’ said the wife, with a troubled air. ‘I don’t think it can be right.’

‘I don’t think so either,’ answered Lord Hartfield. ‘You had better call in the doctor.’

‘I will, my lord, to-morrow morning. James will be angry with me, I daresay; but I must take upon myself to do it without his leave.’

She led the way along a passage corresponding with the one above, and unlocked a door opening into a lobby near the billiard-room.

‘Come, Molly, see if you can beat me at a fifty game,’ said Lord Hartfield, with the air of a man who wants to shake off the impression of some dominant idea.

‘Of course you will annihilate me, but it will be a relief to play,’ answered Mary. ‘That strange old man has given me a shock. Everything about his surroundings is so different from what I expected. And how could an uncle of Steadman’s come by all that money — and those jewels — if they were jewels, and not bits of glass which the poor old thing has chopped up, in order to delude himself with an imaginary treasure?’

‘I do not think they are bits of glass, Molly.’

‘They sparkled tremendously — almost as much as my — our — the family diamonds,’ said Mary, puzzled how to describe that property which she held in right of her position as countess regnant; ‘but if they are real jewels, and all those rouleaux real money, how could Steadman’s uncle become possessed of such wealth?’

‘How, indeed?’ said Lord Hartfield, choosing his cue

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31