Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 28

Preparing the Ground.

Black Milsom made his appearance in the little village of Raynham immediately after Lady Eversleigh’s departure from the castle. But on this occasion it would have been very difficult for those who had seen him at the date of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s funeral to recognize, in the respectable-looking, well-dressed citizen of to-day, the ragged tramp of that period.

While Honoria Eversleigh was living under a false name in Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, the man who called himself her father, established himself in a little river-side public-house, under the shadow of Raynham Castle. The house in question had never borne too good a character; and its reputation was in nowise improved when, on the death of its owner, it passed into the custody of Mr. Milsom, who came down to Raynham one November morning, almost immediately after Lady Eversleigh’s departure, saw the “Cat and Fiddle” public-house vacant, and went straight to the attorney who had the letting of it, to offer himself as a tenant, announcing himself to the lawyer as Thomas Maunders.

The attorney at first looked rather suspiciously at the gentleman who had earned for himself the ominous nickname of Black Milsom; but when the would-be tenant offered to pay a year’s rent in advance down on the nail, the man of law melted, and took the money.

Thomas Milsom lost no time in taking possession of his new abode. It was the haunt of the lower class of agricultural labourers, and of the bargemen, who moored their barges sometimes beneath the shadow of Raynham Bridge, while they dawdled away a few lazy hours in the village public-house.

Any one who had cared to study Mr. Milsom’s face and manners during his residence at Raynham, would have speedily perceived that the life did not suit him. He lounged at the door of the low-gabled cottage, looking out into the village street with a moody and sullen countenance.

He drank a great deal, and swore not a little, and led altogether as dissolute a life as it was possible to lead in that peaceful village.

No sooner had Mr. Milsom established himself at Raynham, than he made it his business to find out the exact state of affairs at the castle. He contrived to entice one of the under-servants into his bar-parlour, and entertained the man so liberally, with a smoking jorum of strong rum-punch, that a friendly acquaintance was established between the two on the spot.

“There’s nothing in my place you ain’t welcome to, James Harwood,” he said. “You’re uncommonly like a favourite brother of mine that died young of the measles; and I’ve taken a fancy to you on account of that likeness. Come when you like, and as often as you like, and call for what you like; and there shan’t be no talk of scores between you and me. I’m a bitter foe, and a firm friend. When I like a man there’s nothing I couldn’t do to prove my liking; when I hate him —”

Here Mr. Milsom’s speech died away into an ominous growl; and James Harwood, who was rather a timid young man, felt as if drops of cold water had been running down his back. But the rum-punch was very nice; and he saw no reason why he should refuse Mr. Milsom’s offer of friendship.

He did drop in very often, having plenty of leisure evenings in which to amuse himself; and through him Thomas Milsom was enabled to become familiar with every detail of the household at Raynham Castle.

“No news of your lady, I suppose, Mr. Harwood?” Milsom said to him one Sunday evening in January. “Not coming home yet, I suppose?”

“No, Mr. Maunders,” answered the groom; “not to my knowledge. And as to news, there ain’t anymore news of her than if she and Miss Payland had gone off to the very wildest part of Africa, where, if you feel lonesome, and want company, your only choice lies between tigers and rattlesnakes.”

“Never mind Africa! What was it that you were going to say about your lady?”

“Well, I was about to inform you,” replied the groom, with offended dignity, “when you took me up so uncommon short as to prevent me — I was about to observe that, although we haven’t received no news whatsoever from my lady direct, we have received a little bit of news promiscuous that is rather puzzling, in a manner of speaking.”

“What is it?”

“Well, you see, Mr. Maunders,” began James Harwood, with extreme solemnity, “it is given out that Lady Eversleigh is gone abroad to the Continent — wherever that place may be situated — and a very nice place I dare say it is, when you get there; and it is likewise given out that Miss Payland have gone with her.”

“Well, what then?”

“I really wish you hadn’t such a habit of taking people up short, Mr. Maunders,” remonstrated the groom. “I was on the point of telling you that our head-coachman had a holiday this Christmas; and where does he go but up to London, to see his friends, which live there; and while in London where does he go but to Drury Lane Theatre; and while coming out of Drury Lane Theatre who does he set his eyes on but Miss Payland, Lady Eversleigh’s own maid, as large as life, and hanging on the arm of a respectable elderly man, which might be her father. Our head-coachman warn’t near enough to her to speak to her; and though he tried to catch her eye he couldn’t catch it; but he’ll take his Bible oath that the young woman he saw was Jane Payland, Lady Eversleigh’s own maid. Now, that’s rather a curious circumstance, is it not, Mr. Maunders?”

“It is, rather,” answered the landlord; “but it seems to me your mistress, Lady Eversleigh, is rather a strange person altogether. It’s a strange thing for a mother to run away to foreign parts — if she has gone to foreign parts — and leave her only child behind her.”

“Yes; and a child she was so fond of too; that’s the strangest part of the whole business,” said the groom. “I’m sure to see that mother and child together, you’d have thought there was no power on earth would part them; and yet, all of a sudden, my lady goes off, and leaves Miss Gertrude behind her. But if Miss Gertrude was a royal princess, she couldn’t be more watched over, or taken more care of, than she is. To see Mrs. Morden, the governess, with her, you’d think as the little girl was made of barley-sugar, and would melt away with a drop of rain; and to see Captain Copplestone with her, you’d think as she was the crown-jewels of England, and that everybody was on the watch to get the chance of stealing her.”

Black Milsom smiled as the groom said this. It was a grim smile, not by any means pleasant to see; but James Harwood was not an observer, and he was looking tenderly at his last spoonful of rum-punch, and wondering within himself whether Mr. Milsom was likely to offer him another glass of that delicious beverage.

“And pray what sort of a customer is Captain Copplestone?” asked Milsom, thoughtfully.

“An uncommonly tough customer,” replied James Harwood; “that’s what he is. If it wasn’t for his rheumatic gout, he’s a man that would be ready to fight the champion of England any day in the week. There’s very few things the captain wouldn’t do in the way of downright pluck; but, you see, whatever pluck a man may have, it can’t help him much when he’s laid by the heels with the rheumatic gout, as the captain is very often.”

“Ha! and who takes care of little missy then?”

“Why, the captain. He’s like a watch-dog, and his kennel is at little missy’s door. That’s what he says himself, in his queer way. Miss Gertrude and her governess live in three handsome rooms in the south wing — my lady’s own rooms — and the principal way to these rooms is along a wide corridor. So what does the captain do when my lady goes away, but order a great iron door down from London, and has the corridor shut off with this iron door, bolted, and locked, and barred, so that the cleverest burglar that ever were couldn’t get it open.”

“But how do people get to the little girl’s rooms, then?” asked Thomas Milsom.

“Why, through a small bed-room, intended for Lady Eversleigh’s maid; and a little bit of a dressing-room, that poor Sir Oswald used to keep his boots, and hat-boxes, and such like in. These rooms open on to the second staircase; and what does the captain do but have these two small rooms fitted up for hisself and his servant, Solomon Grundy, with a thin wooden partition, with little glass spy-holes in it, put across the two rooms, to make a kind of passage to the rooms beyond; so that night and day he can hear every footstep that goes by to Miss Gertrude’s rooms. Now, what do you think of such whims and fancies?”

“I think the captain must be stark staring mad,” answered Milsom; but it was to be observed that he said this in rather an absent manner, and appeared to be thinking deeply.

“Oh no, he ain’t,” said James Harwood; “there ain’t a sharper customer going.”

And then, finding that the landlord of the “Cat and Fiddle” did not offer anything more in the way of refreshment, Mr. Harwood departed.

There was a full moon that January night, and when Mr. Milsom had attended to the wants of his customers, seen the last of them to the door a little before twelve o’clock, shut his shutters, and extinguished the lights, he stole quietly out of his house, went forth into the deserted street, and made his way towards the summit of the hill on which the castle stood, like an ancient fortress, frowning darkly upon the humble habitations beneath it.

He passed the archway and the noble gothic gates, and crept along by the fine old wall that enclosed the park, where the interlaced branches of giant oaks and beeches were white under the snow that had fallen upon them, and formed a picture that was almost like a scene in Fairyland.

He climbed the wall at a spot where a thick curtain of ivy afforded him a safe footing, and dropped softly upon the ground beneath, where the snow had drifted into a heap, and made a soft bed for him to fall on.

“There will be more snow before daylight to-morrow,” he muttered to himself, “if I’m any judge of the weather; and there’ll be no trace of my footsteps to give the hint of mischief.” He ran across the park, leaped the light, invisible fence dividing the park from the gardens, and crept cautiously along a shrubberied pathway, where the evergreens afforded him an impenetrable screen.

Thus concealed from the eyes of any chance watcher, he contrived to approach one end of the terraced slope which formed the garden front of the castle. Each terrace was adorned with stone balustrades, surmounted by large vases, also of stone; and, sheltered by these vases, Milsom ascended to the southern angle of the great pile of building.

Seven lighted windows at this southern end of the castle indicated the apartments occupied by the heiress of Raynham and her eccentric guardian. The lights burned but dimly, like the night-lamps left burning during the hours of rest; and Milsom had ascertained from Mr. Harwood that the household retired before eleven o’clock, at the latest.

The apartments occupied by the little girl were on the first floor. The massive stone walls here were unadorned with ivy, nor were there any of those elaborate decorations in stonework which might have afforded a hold for the foot of the climber. The bare stone wall frowned down upon Thomas Milsom, impregnable as the walls of Newgate itself.

“No,” he muttered to himself, after a long and thoughtful scrutiny; “no man will ever get at those rooms from the outside; no, not if he had the power of changing himself into a cat or a monkey. Whoever wants to have a peep at the heiress of Raynham must go through this valiant captain’s chamber. Well, well, I’ve heard of tricks played upon faithful watch-dogs before to-day. There’s very few things a man can’t do, if he only tries hard enough; and I mean to be revenged upon my Lady Eversleigh!” He paused for a few moments, standing close against the wall of the castle, sheltered by its black shadow, and looking down upon the broad domain beneath.

“And this is all hers, is it P— lands and houses; horses and carriages; powdered footmen to fetch and carry for her; jewels to wear; plates and dishes of solid gold to eat her dinner off, if she likes! All hers! And she refuses me a few hundred pounds, and defies me, does she? We’ll see whether that’s a safe game. I’ve sworn to have my revenge, and I’ll have it,” he muttered, shaking his brawny fist, as if some phantom figure were standing before him in the wintry moonlight. “I can afford to wait; I wouldn’t mind waiting years to get it; but I’ll have it, if I grow old and gray while I’m watching and plotting for it. I’ll be patient as Time, but I’ll have it. She has refused me a few hundreds, has she? I’ll see her there, on the ground at my feet, grovelling like a beaten dog, offering me half her fortune — all her fortune — her very life itself! I’ll humble her proud spirit! I’ll bring her grandeur down to the the dust. She won’t own me for a father, won’t she! Why, if I choose, she shall tramp barefoot through the mud after me, singing street-ballads in every town in England, and going round with my battered old hat to beg for halfpence afterwards. I’ll humble her! I’ll do it — I’ll do it — as sure as there’s a moon in the sky!”

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