Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 39

“Confusion Worse than Death.”

Sir Reginald Eversleigh had paid Victor Carrington a long visit, at the cottage at Maida Hill, on the day which had witnessed the distressing interview and angry parting between Douglas Dale and Madame Durski. They had talked a great deal, and Reginald had been struck by the strange excitement — the almost feverish exultation — in Carrington’s tone and manner. He was not more openly communicative as to his plans than usual, but he expressed his expectation of triumph in a way which Eversleigh had never heard him do before.

“You seem quite sanguine, Victor,” said Sir Reginald. “Mind, I don’t ask questions, but you really are sure all is going well?”

“Our affairs march, mon ami. And you are making your game with the old lady at Richmond admirably, are you not?”

“Nothing could be better, and indeed I ought to succeed, for it’s dull work, I can tell you, especially when she begins talking resignedly about the child that was stolen a few centuries ago, and her hopes of meeting it in a better world. Horrid bore — dreadful bosh; but anything is worth bearing if money is to be made of it — good, sure, sterling money. I think it will do me good to see some real money — bank-notes and gold, and that sort of thing — for an accommodation bill is the only form of cash I’ve handled since I came of age. How happy we shall be when it all comes right — your game and mine!” continued the baronet. “My plans are very simple. I shall only exchange my shabby lodgings in the Strand for apartments in Piccadilly, overlooking the Park, of course. I shall resume my old position among my own set, and enjoy life after my own fashion; and when once I am possessor of a handsome fortune, I dare say I shall have no difficulty in getting a rich wife. And you, Victor, how shall you employ our wealth?”

“In the restoration of my name,” replied the Frenchman, with suppressed intensity. “Yes, Sir Reginald, the one purpose of my life is told in those words. I have been an outcast and an adventurer, friendless, penniless; but I am the last scion of a noble house, and to restore to that house some small portion of its long-lost splendour has been the one dream of my manhood. I am not given to talk much of that which lies nearest my heart, and never until to-night have I spoken to you of my single ambition; but you, who have watched me toiling upon a weary road, wading through a morass of guilt, must surely have guessed that the pole-star must needs be a bright one which could lure me onward upon so hideous a pathway. The end has come at last, and I now speak freely. My name is not Carrington. I am Viscomte Champfontaine, of Champfontaine, in the department of Charente, and my name was once the grandest in western France; but the Revolution robbed us of lands and wealth, and there remain now but four rugged stone towers of that splendid chateau which once rose proudly above the woods of Champfontaine, like a picture by Gustave Doré. The fountain in the field still flows, limpid as in those days when the soldier-Gaul pitched his tent beside its waters, and took for himself the name of Champfontaine. To restore that name, to rebuild that chateau — that is the dream which I have cherished.”

Excited by this unwonted revelation of his feelings, and by the anticipation of the realization of all his hopes, the Frenchman rose, and paced rapidly up and down the room.

“I will go to Champfontaine,” he said. “I will look once more upon the crumbling towers, so soon to be restored to their primitive strength and grandeur.”

Reginald watched him wonderingly. This enthusiasm about an ancient name was beyond his comprehension. He too, bore a name that had been honourable for centuries, and he had recklessly degraded that name. He had begun life with all the best gifts of fortune in his hands, and had squandered all.

“I hear your cousin Douglas is very ill,” said Carrington, checking his excited manner, and speaking with a sudden change of tone, which produced a strange thrill of Sir Reginald’s somewhat weak nerves. “I should recommend you to go and call upon him at his chambers. Never mind any coolness there may have been between you. You needn’t see him, you know; in fact it will be much better for you to avoid doing so. But just call and make the inquiry. I am really anxious to know if there is anything the matter with him.”

Sir Reginald Eversleigh looked at the Frenchman with a half doubtful, half horror-stricken look — such a look as Faust may have cast at Mephistopheles, when Gretchen’s soldier-brother fell, stricken by the invisible sword of the demon.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Victor,” he said, after a pause, “unless our luck changes pretty quickly, I shall throw up the sponge some fine morning, and blow my brains out. Affairs have been desperate with me for a long time, and your fine schemes have not made me a halfpenny richer. I begin to think that, in spite of all your cleverness, you’re no better than a bungler.”

“I shall begin to think so myself,” answered Victor, between his set teeth, “unless success comes to us speedily. We have been working underground, and the work has been slow and wearisome; but the end cannot be far distant,” he added, with a heavy sigh. “Go and inquire after your cousin’s health.”

And so Reginald Eversleigh strove to dismiss the subject from his mind. So powerful is self-deception, that he almost succeeded in persuading himself that he had no part in Carrington’s plots — that he did not know at what he was aiming and that he was, personally, absolved from any share in the crime that was being perpetrated, if crime there was; but that there was, he even affected himself to doubt.

After Sir Reginald left him, Victor Carrington threw himself into a chair in a fit of deep despondency. After a time that mood passed away, and he roused himself, and thought of what he had to do that day. He had seen Miss Brewer only the previous day. He had learned how much alarmed Paulina was about her lover’s health, and with what good reason. Victor Carrington came to a resolution that this day should be the last of waiting — of suspense. He took a phial from the press where he kept all deadly drugs, placed it in his breast-pocket, and went to his mother’s sitting-room. The widow was sitting, as usual, at her embroidery-frame. She counted some stitches before she raised her head to look at her son. But when she did look up, her own face changed, and she said —

“Victor, you are ill. I know you are. You look very ill — not like yourself. What ails you?”

“Nothing, mother,” replied Victor; “nothing that a little fresh air and exercise will not remove. I have been a little over-excited, that is all. I have been thinking of the old home that sheltered my grandfather before the sequestrations of ‘93 — the home that could be bought back to-day for an old song, and which a few thousands, judiciously invested, might restore to something of its old grandeur. One of the Champfontaines received Francis I. and his sister Marguerite in the old chateau which they burnt during the Terror. Mother, I will tell you a secret to-day: ever since I can remember having a wish, the one great desire of my life has been the desire to restore the place and the name; and I hope to accomplish that desire soon, mother — very soon.”

“Victor, this is the talk of a madman!” exclaimed the Frenchwoman, alarmed by her son’s unwonted vehemence.

“No, mother, it is the talk of a man who feels himself on the verge of a great success — or — a stupendous failure.”

“I cannot understand —”

“There is no need for you to understand any more than this: I have been playing a bold game, and I believe it will prove a winning one.”

“Is this game an honest one, Victor?”

“Honest? oh, yes!” answered the surgeon, with an ominous laugh, “why should I be not honest? Does not the world teach a man to be honest? See what noble rewards it offers for honesty.”

He took a crumpled letter from his pocket as he spoke, and threw it across the table to his mother.

“Read that, mother,” he said; “that is my reward for ten years’ honest toil in a laborious profession. Captain Halkard, the inaugurator of an Arctic expedition for scientific purposes, writes to invite me to join his ship as surgeon. He has heard of my conscientious devotion to my profession — my exceptional talents — see, those are his exact words, and he offers me the post of ship’s surgeon, with a honorarium of fifty pounds. The voyage is supposed to last six months; it is much more likely to last a year; it is most likely to last for ever — for, from the place to which these men are going, the chances are against any man’s return. And for unutterable hardship, for the hazard of my life, for my exceptional talents, my conscientious devotion, he offers me fifty pounds. That, mother, is the price which honesty commands in the great market of life.”

“But it might lead to something, Victor,” murmured the mother, as she put down the letter, pleased by the writer’s praises of her son.

“Oh, yes, it might lead to a few words of commendation in a scientific journal; possibly a degree of F.R.G.S.; or very probably a grave under the ice, with a grizzly bear for sexton.”

“You will not accept the offer?”

“Not unless my great scheme fails at the last moment — as it cannot fail — as it cannot!” he repeated, with the air of a man who tries to realize a possibility too horrible for imagination.

It was very late that night before Paulina Durski, worn out by the emotion she had undergone, could be persuaded to retire to rest. After Douglas had left her, all the firmness forsook her, all her pride was overthrown. Despair unutterable took possession of her. With him went her last hope — her one only chance of happiness. She flung herself, face downwards, on her sofa, and gave way to the wildest, most agonizing grief. Thus Miss Brewer found her, and eagerly questioned her concerning the cause of her distress. But she could obtain no explanation from Paulina, who only answered, in a voice broken by convulsive sobs, “Some other time, some other time; don’t ask me now.” So Miss Brewer was forced to be silent, if not content, and at length she persuaded Paulina to go to bed.

The faithful friend arranged everything with her own hands for Madame Durski’s comfort, and would not consent to leave her till she had lain down to rest. The broken-hearted woman bade her friend good night calmly enough, but before Miss Brewer reached the door, she heard Paulina’s sobs burst forth again, and saw that she had covered her face with her hands, and buried it in the pillow.

It was late on the following morning when Miss Brewer entered Paulina’s room, and having softly opened the shutters, drew near the bed with a noiseless step. The bed-clothes, which were wont to be tossed and tumbled by the restless sleeper, were smooth and undisturbed. Never had Miss Brewer seen her mistress in an attitude so expressive of complete repose.

“Poor thing! she has had a good night after all,” thought the companion.

She bent over the quiet figure, the pale face, so statuesque in that calm sleep, and gently touched the white, listless hand.

Yes — this indeed was perfect repose; but it was the repose of death. The bottle from which Paulina had habitually taken a daily modicum of opium, lay on the ground by the bedside, empty.

Whether the luckless, hopeless, heart-broken woman, overwhelmed by the sense of an inscrutable Fate that forbade her every chance of peace or happiness, had, in her supreme despair, committed the sin of the suicide, who shall say? It is possible that she had only taken an over~dose of the perilous compound unconsciously, in the dull apathy of her despair.

She was dead. Life for her had been one long humiliation, one long struggle. And at last, when the cup of happiness had been offered to her lips, a cruel hand had snatched it away from her.

When Miss Brewer recovered her senses and her power of action, she sent for Douglas Dale. News of the awful event had got abroad by that time, through the terrified servants; and two doctors and a policeman were on the premises. A messenger was easily procured, who tore off in a hansom to the Temple. As the man ran up the steps leading to Dr. Johnson’s Buildings, where Dale’s new chambers were situated, he encountered two ladies on the first landing.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, pushing them, however, very decidedly aside as he spoke, “I must see Mr. Dale; please do not detain him. It is most important.” The ladies stood aside exchanging frightened and curious looks, but made no attempt to make their presence known to Mr. Dale, who came out of his rooms in a few minutes, attended by the messenger, and passed them without seeming in the least aware of their presence, and wearing the ghastliest face that ever was seen on mortal man. That face struck them dumb and motionless, and it was not until Jarvis had twice asked them their names and business, that the elder lady replied. “They would call again,” she told him, and handed him cards bearing the names of “Lady Verner,” “Lady Eversleigh.”

Victor Carrington appeared at Hilton House early in the afternoon. He had calculated that his work must needs be very near its completion, and he came prepared to hear of Douglas Dale’s mortal illness.

The blow that awaited him was a death-blow. Miss Brewer had told Douglas all: the lies, the artifices, by which the man Carton had contrived to make himself a constant visitor in that house. In a moment, without the mention of the schemer’s real name, Heaven’s light was let in upon the mystery; the dark enigma was solved, and the woman, so tenderly loved and so cruelly wronged, was exonerated.

Too late — too late! That was the agonizing reflection which smote the heart of Douglas Dale, with a pain more terrible than the sharpest death-pang. “I have broken her heart!” he cried. “I have broken that true, devoted heart!”

The appearance of Victor Carrington was the signal for such a burst of rage as even his iron nature could scarcely brook unshaken.

“Miscreant! devil! incarnate iniquity!” cried Douglas, as he grasped and grappled with the baffled plotter. “You have tried to murder me — and you have tried to murder her! I might have forgiven you the first crime — I will drag you to the halter for the second, and think myself poorly revenged when I hear the rabble yelling beneath your scaffold!”

Happily for Carrington, the effects of the poison had reduced his victim to extreme weakness. The convulsive grasp loosened, the hoarse voice died into a whisper, and Douglas Dale swooned as helplessly as a woman.

“What does it mean?” asked Victor. “Is this man mad?”

“We have all been mad!” returned Miss Brewer, passionately. “The blind, besotted dupes of your demoniac wickedness! Paulina Durski is dead!”

“Dead!”

“Yes. There was a quarrel, yesterday, between these two — and he left her. I found her this morning — dead! I have told him all — the part I have played at your bidding. I shall tell it again in a court of justice, I pray God!”

“You can tell it when and where you please,” replied Victor, with horrible calmness. “I shall not be there to hear it.”

He walked out of the house. Douglas Dale had not yet recovered consciousness, and there was no one to hinder Carrington’s departure.

For some time he walked on, unconscious whither he went, unable to grasp or realize the events that had befallen. But at last-dimly, darkly, grim shapes arose out of the chaos of his brain.

There would be a trial — some kind of trial! — Douglas Dale would not be baffled of vengeance if the law could give it him. His crime — what was it, if it could be proved? An attempt to murder — an attempt the basest, the most hideous, and revolting. What hope could he have of mercy — he, utterly merciless himself, expected no such weakness from his fellow~men.

But in this supreme hour of utter defeat, his thoughts did not dwell on the hazards of the future. The chief bitterness of his soul was the agony of disappointment — of baffled hope — of humiliation, degradation unspeakable. He had thought himself invincible, the master of his fellow-men, by the supremacy of intellectual power, and remorseless cruelty. And he was what? A baffled trickster, whose every move upon the great chessboard had been a separate mistake, leading step by step to the irrevocable sentence — checkmate!

The ruined towers of Champfontaine arose before him, as in a vision, black against a blood-red sky.

“I can understand those mad devils of ‘93 — I can understand the roll~call of the guillotine — the noyades — the conflagrations — the foul orgies of murderous drunkards, drunken with blood. Those men had schemed as I have schemed, and worked as I have worked, and waited as I have waited — to fail like me!”

He had walked far from the West-end, into some dreary road eastward of the City, choosing by some instinct the quietest streets, before he was calm enough to contemplate the perils of his position, or to decide upon the course he should take.

A few minutes’ reflection told him that he must fly — Douglas Dale would doubtless hunt him as a wild beast is hunted. Where was he to go? Was there any lair, or covert, in all that wide city where he might be safely hidden from the vengeance of the man he had wronged so deeply?

He remembered Captain Halkard’s letter. He dragged the crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket, and read a few lines. Yes: it was as he had thought. The “Pandion” was to leave Gravesend at five o’clock next morning.

“I will go to the ice-graves and the bears!” he exclaimed. “Let them track me there!”

Energetic always, no less energetic even in this hour of desperation, he made his way down to the sailors’ quarter, and spent his few last pounds in the purchase of a scanty outfit. After doing this, he dined frugally at a quiet tavern, and then took the steamer for Gravesend.

He slept on board the “Pandion.” The place offered him had not been filled by any one else. It was not a very tempting post, or a very tempting expedition. The men who had organized it were enthusiasts, imbued with that fever-thirst of the explorer which has made many martyrs, from the age of the Cabots to the days of Franklin.

The “Pandion” sailed in that gray cheerless morning, her white sails gleaming ghastly athwart the chill mists of the river, and so vanished for ever Victor Carrington from the eyes of all men, save those who went with him. The fate of that expedition was never known. Beneath what iceberg the “Pandion” found her grave none can tell. Brave and noble hearts perished with her, and to die with those good men was too honourable a doom for such a wretch as Victor Carrington.

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