Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

A Meeting and an Explanation.

For George Jernam’s young wife, the days passed sadly enough in the pleasant village of Allanbay. Fair as the scene of her life was, to poor Rosamond it seemed as if the earth were overshadowed by dark clouds, through which no ray of sunlight could penetrate. The affection which had sprung up between her and Susan Jernam was deep and strong, and the only gleam of happiness which Rosamond experienced in her melancholy existence came from the affection of her husband’s aunt.

If Rosamond’s existence was not happy, it was, at least in all outward seeming, peaceful. But the heart of the deserted wife knew not peace. She was perpetually brooding over the strange circumstances of George’s departure — perpetually asking herself why it was he had left her.

She could shape no answer to that constantly repeated question.

Had he ceased to love her? No! surely that could not be, for the change which arises in the most inconstant heart is, at least, gradual. George Jernam had changed in a day — in an hour.

Reason upon the subject as she might, the conviction at which Rosamond arrived at last was always the same. She believed that the mysterious change that had arisen in the husband she so fondly loved was a change in the mind itself — a sudden monomania, beyond the influence of the outer world — a wild hallucination of the brain, not to be cured by any ordinary physician.

Believing this, the wife’s heart was tortured as she thought of the perils that surrounded her husband’s life — perils that were doubly terrible for one whose mind had lost its even balance.

She watched every alteration in the atmosphere, every cloud in the sky, with unspeakable anxiety. As the autumn gave place to winter, as the winds blew loud above the broad expanse of ocean, as the foam-crests of the dark waves rose high, and gleamed white and silvery in the dim twilight, her heart sank with an awful fear for the absent wanderer.

Night and day her prayers arose to heaven — such prayers as only the loving heart of woman breathes for the object of all her thoughts.

While Rosamond occupied the abode which Captain Jernam had chosen for her, River View Cottage was abandoned entirely to the care of Mrs. Mugby and Susan Trott, and the trim house had a desolate look in the dismal autumn days, and the darkening winter twilights, carefully as it was kept by Mrs. Mugby, who aired the rooms, and dusted and polished the furniture every day, as industriously as if she had been certain of the captain’s return before night-fall.

“He may come this night, or he may not come for a year,” she said to Susan very often, when Miss Trott was a little disposed to neglect some of her duties, in the way of dusting and polishing; “but mark my words, Susan, when he does come, he’ll come sudden, without so much as one line of warning, or notice enough to get a bit of dinner ready for him.”

The day came at last when the housekeeper was gratified to find that all her dusting and polishing had not been thrown away. Captain Duncombe returned exactly as she had prophesied he would return, without sending either note or message to give warning of his arrival.

He rang the bell one day, and walked into the garden, and from the garden into the house, with the air of a man who had just come home from a morning’s walk, much to the astonishment of Susan Trott, who admitted him, and who stared at him with eyes opened to their widest extent, as he strode hurriedly past her.

He went straight into the parlour he had been accustomed to sit in. A fire was burning brightly in the polished steel grate, and everything bore the appearance of extreme comfort.

The merchant-captain looked round the room with an air of satisfaction.

“There’s nothing like a trip to the Indies for making a man appreciate the comforts of his own home,” he exclaimed. “How cheery it all looks; and a man must be a fool who couldn’t enjoy himself at home after tossing about in a hurricane off Gibraltar for a week at a stretch. But where’s your mistress?” cried Joe Duncombe, suddenly, turning to the astonished Susan. “Where’s Mrs. Jernam? — where’s my daughter? Doesn’t she hear her old father’s gruff voice? Isn’t she coming to bid me welcome after all I’ve gone through to earn more money for her?”

Before Susan could answer, Mrs. Mugby had heard the voice of her master, and came hurrying in to greet him.

“Thank you for your hearty welcome,” said the captain, hurriedly; “but where’s my daughter? Is she out of doors this cold winter day, gadding about London streets? — or how the deuce is it she doesn’t come to give her old father a kiss, and bid him welcome home?”

“Lor’, sir,” cried Mrs. Mugby, “you don’t mean to say as you haven’t heard from Miss Rosa — begging your pardon, Mrs. Jernam — but the other do come so much more natural?”

“Heard from her!” exclaimed the captain. “Not I, I haven’t had a line from her. But heaven have mercy on us! how the woman does stare! There isn’t anything wrong with my daughter, is there? She’s well — eh?”

The captain’s honest face grew pale, as a sudden fear arose in his mind.

“Don’t tell me my daughter is ill,” he gasped; “or worse —”

“No, no, no, captain,” cried Mrs. Mugby. “I heard from Mrs. Jernam only a week ago, and she was quite well; but she is residing down in Devonshire, where she removed with her husband last July; and I made sure you would have received a letter telling you of the change.”

“What!” roared Joseph Duncombe; “did my daughter go and turn her back upon the comfortable little box her father built for her — the place he spent his hard-won earnings upon for her sake? So Rosy got tired of the cottage, did she? It wasn’t good enough for her, I suppose. Well, well, that does seem rather hard somehow — it does seem hard.”

The captain dropped heavily down into the chair nearest him. He was deeply wounded by the idea that his daughter had deserted the home which he had made for her.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” interposed Mrs. Mugby, in her most insinuating tone, “which I am well aware it’s not my place to interfere in family matters; but knowing as devotion itself is a word not strong enough to express Mrs. Jernam’s feelings for her pa, I cannot stand by and see her misunderstood by that very pa. It was no doings of hers as she left River View, Captain Buncombe, for the place was very dear to her; but Captain Jernam, he took it into his head all of a sudden he’d set off for foreign parts in his ship the ‘Albert’s horse’; and before he went, he insisted on taking Mrs. Jernam down to Devonshire, which burying her alive would be too mild a word for such cruelty, I think.”

“What! he deserted his post, did he?” exclaimed the captain. “Ran away from his pretty young wife, after promising to stop with her till I came back! Now, I don’t call that an honest man’s conduct,” added the captain, indignantly.

“No more would any one, sir,” answered the housekeeper. “A wild, roving life is all very well in its way, but if a man who is just married to a pretty young wife, that worships the very ground he walks on, can’t stay at home quiet, I should like to know who can?”

“So he went to sea himself, and took his wife down to Devonshire before he sailed, eh?” said the captain. “Very fine goings on, upon my word! And did Miss Rosy consent to leave her father’s home without a murmur?” he asked, angrily.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” pleaded Mrs. Mugby, “Miss Rosamond was not the one to murmur before servants, whatever she might feel in her heart. I overheard her crying and sobbing dreadful one night, poor dear, when she little thought as there was any one to overhear her.”

“Did she say anything to you before she left?”

“Not till the night before she went away, and then she came to me in my kitchen, and said, ‘Mrs. Mugby, it’s my husband’s wish I should go down to Devonshire and live there, while he’s away with his ship. Of course, I am very sorry to leave the house that my dear father made such a happy home for me, and in which he and I lived so peaceably together; but I am bound to obey my husband, let him ask what he will. I shall write to my dear father, and tell him how sorry I am to leave my home.’”

“Did she say that?” said the captain, evidently touched by this proof of his child’s affection. “Then I won’t belie her so much as to doubt her love for me. I never got her letter; and why George Jernam should kick up his heels directly I was gone, and be off with his ship goodness knows where, is more than I can tell. I begin to think the best sailor that ever roamed the seas is a bad bargain for a husband. I’m sorry I ever let my girl marry a rover. However, I’ll just settle my business in London, and be off to Devonshire to see my poor little deserted Rosy. I suppose she’s gone to live at that sea-coast village where Jernam’s aunt lives?”

“Yes, sir, Allandale — or Allanbay — or some such name, I think, they call the place.”

“Yes, Allanbay — I remember,” answered the captain. “I’ll try and get through the business I’ve got on hand to-night, and be off to Devonshire to-morrow.”

Mrs. Mugby exerted herself to the uttermost in her endeavour to make the captain’s first dinner at home a great culinary triumph, but the disappointment he had experienced that morning had quite taken away his appetite. He had anticipated such delight from his unannounced return to River View Cottage; he had pictured to himself his daughter’s rapturous welcome; he had fancied her rushing to greet him at the first sound of his voice; and had almost felt her soft arm clasped around his neck, her kisses on his face.

Instead of the realization of this bright dream, he had found only disappointment.

Susan Trott placed the materials for the captain’s favourite punch upon the table after she had removed the cloth; but Joseph Duncombe did not appear to see the cherry preparations for a comfortable evening. He rose hastily from his chair, put on his hat, and went out, much to the discomfiture of the worthy Mrs. Mugby.

“After what I went through with standing over that roaring furnace of a kitchen-range, it does seem hard to see my sole just turned over and played with, like, and my chicking not so much as touched,” said the dame. “Oh, Miss Rosamond, Miss Rosamond, you’ve a deal to answer for!”

Captain Duncombe walked along the dark road between the cottage and Ratcliff Highway at a rapid pace. He soon reached the flaring lights of the sailors’ quarter, through which he made his way as fast as he could to a respectable and comfortable little tavern near the Tower, much frequented by officers of the merchant service.

He had promised to meet an old shipmate at this house, and was very glad of an excuse for spending his evening away from home.

In the little parlour he found the friend he expected to see, and the two sailors took their glasses of grog together in a very friendly manner, and then parted, the captain’s friend going away first, as he had a long distance to walk, in order to reach his suburban home.

The captain was sitting by the fire meditating, and sipping his last glass of grog, when the door was opened, and some one came into the room.

Joseph Duncombe looked up with a start as the new-comer entered, and, to his intense astonishment, recognized George Jernam.

“Jernam!” he cried; “you in London? Well, this is the greatest surprise of all.”

“Indeed, Captain Duncombe,” answered the other, coolly; “the ‘Albatross’ only entered the port of London this afternoon. This is the first place I have come to, and of all men on earth I least expected to meet you here.”

“And from your tone, youngster, it seems as if the surprise were by no means a pleasant one,” cried Joseph Duncombe. “May I ask how Rosamond Duncombe’s husband comes to address his wife’s father in the tone you have just used to me?”

“You are Rosamond’s father,” answered George; “that is sufficient reason that Valentine Jernam’s brother should keep aloof from you.”

“The man’s mad,” muttered Captain Duncombe; “undoubtedly mad.”

“No,” answered George Jernam, “I am not mad — I am only too acutely conscious of the misery of my position. I love your daughter, Joseph Duncombe; love her as fondly and truly as ever a man loved the wife of his choice. And yet here am I skulking in London, alone and miserable, at the hour when I should be hurrying back to the home of my darling. Dear though she is to me — truly as I love her — I dare not go back to her; for between her and me there rises the phantom of my murdered brother Valentine!”

“What on earth has my daughter Rosamond to do with the wretched fate of your brother?” asked the captain.

“In her own person, nothing; but it is her misfortune to be allied to one who was in league with the assassin, or assassins, of my unhappy brother.”

“What, in heaven’s name, do you mean?” asked the bewildered captain of the “Vixen.”

“Do not press me for my meaning, Captain Duncombe,” answered George, in a repellant tone; “you are my father-in-law. The knowledge which accident revealed to me of one dark secret in your life of seeming honesty came too late to prevent that tie between us. When the fatal truth revealed itself to me I was already your daughter’s husband. That secures my silence. Do not force yourself upon me. I shall do my duty to your daughter as if you and your crime had never been upon this earth. But you and I can never meet again except as foes. The remembrance of my brother Valentine is part and parcel of my life, and a wrong done to him is twice a wrong to myself.”

The captain of the “Vixen” had arisen from his chair. He stood before his son-in-law, breathless, crimson with passion.

“George Jernam,” he cried, “do you want me to knock you down? Egad, my fine gentleman, you may consider yourself lucky that I have not done it before this. What do you mean by all that balderdash you’ve been talking? What does it all mean, I say? Are you drunk, or mad, or both?”

“Captain Duncombe,” said George, calmly, “do you really wish me to speak plainly?”

“It will be very much the worse for you if you don’t,” retorted the infuriated captain.

“First, then, let me tell you that before I left River View Cottage last July, your daughter pressed me to avail myself of the contents of your desk one day when I was in want of foreign letter-paper.”

“Well, what then?”

“Very much against my own inclination, I consented to open that desk with a key in Rosamond’s possession. I did not pry into the secrets of its contents; but before me, in the tray intended for pens, I saw an object which could not fail to attract my attention — which riveted my gaze as surely as if I had ‘lighted on a snake.”

“What in the name of all that’s bewildering could that object have been?” cried the captain. “I don’t keep many curiosities in my writing~desk!”

“I will show you what I found that day,” answered George. “The finding of it changed the whole current of my life, and sent me away from that once happy home a restless and miserable wanderer.”

“The man’s mad,” muttered Captain Duncombe to himself; “he must be mad!”

George Jernam took from his waistcoat pocket a tiny parcel, and unfolding the paper covering, revealed a gold coin — the bent Brazilian coin — which he placed in the captain’s hands.

“Why! heaven have mercy on us!” cried Joseph Duncombe, “if that isn’t the ghost’s money!”

There was astonishment plainly depicted on his countenance; but no look of guilt. George Jernam watched his face as he contemplated the token, and saw that it was not the face of a guilty man.

“Oh, captain, captain!” he exclaimed, remorsefully, “if I have suspected you all this time for nothing?”

“Suspected me of what?”

“Of being concerned, more or less, in my brother’s murder. That piece of gold which you now hold in your hand was a farewell token, given by me to him; you may see my initials scratched upon it. I found it in your desk.”

“And therefore suspected that I was the aider and abettor of thieves and murderers!” exclaimed the captain of the “Vixen.” “George Jernam, I am ashamed of you.”

There was a depth of reproach in the words, common-place though they were.

George Jernam covered his face with his hands, and sat with bent head before the man he had so cruelly wronged.

“If I was a proud man,” said Joseph Duncombe, “I shouldn’t stoop to make any explanation to you. But as I am not a proud man, and as you are my daughter’s husband, I’ll tell you how that bit of gold came into my keeping; and when I’ve told you my story, I’ll bring witnesses to prove that it’s true. Yes, George, I’ll not ask you to believe my word; for how can you take the word of a man you have thought base enough to be the accomplice of a murderer? Oh, George, it was too cruel — too cruel!”

There was a brief silence; and then Captain Duncombe told the story of the appearance of old Screwton’s ghost, and the coin found in the kitchen at River View Cottage after the departure of that apparition.

“I’ve faced many a danger in my lifetime, George Jernam,” said Captain Duncombe; “and I don’t think there’s any man who ever walked the ship’s deck beside me that would call me coward; and yet I’ll confess to you I was frightened that night. Flesh and blood I’ll face anywhere and anyhow; I’ll stand up alone, and fight for my life, one against six — one against twenty, if needs be; but when it comes to a visit from the other world, Joseph Duncombe is done. He shuts up, sir, like an oyster.”

“And do you really believe the man you saw that night was a visitant from the other world?”

“What else can I believe? I’d heard the description of old Screwton’s ghost, and what I saw answered to the description as close as could be.”

“Visitors from the other world do not leave substantial evidences of their presence behind them,” answered George. “The man who dropped that gold coin was no ghost. We’ll see into this business, Captain Duncombe; we’ll fathom it, mysterious as it is. I expect Joyce Harker back from Ceylon in a month or so. He knows more of my brother’s fate than any man living, except those who were concerned in the doing of the deed. He’ll get to the bottom of this business, depend upon it, if any man can. And now, friend — father, can you find it in your heart to forgive me for the bitter wrong I have done you?”

“Well, George,” answered Joseph Duncombe, gravely, “I’m not an unforgiving chap; but there are some things try the easiest of men rather hard, and this is one of them. However, for my little Rosy’s sake, and out of remembrance of the long night-watches you and I have kept together out upon the lonesome sea, I forgive you. There’s my hand and my heart with it.”

George’s eyes were full of tears as he grasped his old captain’s strong hand.

“God bless you,” he murmured; “and heaven be praised that I came into this room to-night! You don’t know the weight you’ve lifted off my heart; you don’t know what I’ve suffered.”

“More fool you,” cried Joe Duncombe; “and now say no more. We’ll start for Devonshire together by the first coach that leaves London to-morrow morning.”

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