East Lynne, by Ellen Wood

Chapter 10.

The Keepers of the Dead.

Events, between the death of Lord Mount Severn and his interment, occurred quickly; and to one of them the reader may feel inclined to demur, as believing that it could have no foundation in fact, in the actions of real life, but must be a wild creation of the author’s brain. He would be wrong. The author is no more fond of wild creations than the reader. The circumstance did take place.

The earl died on Friday morning at daylight. The news spread rapidly. It generally does on the death of a peer, if he has been of note, whether good or bad, in the world, and was known in London before the day was over — the consequence of which was, that by Saturday morning, early, a shoal of what the late peer would have called harpies, had arrived, to surround East Lynne. There were creditors of all sorts; for small sums and for great, for five or ten pounds up to five or ten thousand. Some were civil, some impatient, some loud and rough and angry; some came to put in executions on the effects, and some —to arrest the body!

This last act was accomplished cleverly. Two men, each with a remarkably hooked nose, stole away from the hubbub of the clamorous, and peering cunningly about, made their way to the side or tradesman’s entrance. A kitchen-maid answered their gentle appeal at the bell.

“Is the coffin come yet?” said they.

“Coffin — no!” was the girl’s reply. “The shell ain’t here yet. Mr. Jones didn’t promise that till nine o’clock, and it haven’t gone eight.”

“It won’t be long,” quoth they; “its on it’s road. We’ll go up to his lordship’s room, please, and be getting ready for it.”

The girl called the butler. “Two men from Jones’, the undertaker’s, sir,” announced she. “The shell’s coming on and they want to go up and make ready for it.”

The butler marshaled them upstairs himself, and introduced them to the room. “That will do,” said they, as he was about to enter with them, “we won’t trouble you to wait.” And closing the door upon the unsuspicious butler, they took up their station on either side of the dead, like a couple of ill-omened mutes. They had placed an arrest upon the corpse; it was theirs until their claim was satisfied, and they sat down to thus watch and secure it. Pleasant occupation!

It may have been an hour later that Lady Isabel, leaving her own chamber, opened noiselessly that of the dead. She had been in it several times during the previous day; at first with the housekeeper; afterward, when the nameless dread was somewhat effaced, alone. But she felt nervous again this morning, and had gained the bed before she ventured to lift her eyes from the carpet and encounter the sight. Then she started, for there sat two strange-looking men — and not attractive men either.

It darted through her mind that they must be people from the neighborhood, come to gratify an idle and unpardonable curiosity. Her first impulse was to summon the butler; her second, to speak to them herself.

“Do you want anything here?” she quietly said.

“Much obleeged for the inquiry, miss. We are all right.”

The words and tone struck her as being singular in the extreme; and they kept their seats, too, as though they had a right to be there.

“Why are you here?” she repeated. “What are you doing?”

“Well, miss, I don’t mind telling you, for I suppose you are his daughter”— pointing his left thumb over his shoulder at the late peer —“and we hear he have got no other relative anigh him. We have been obleeged, miss, to perform an unpleasant dooty and secure him.”

The words were like Greek to her, and the men saw that they were.

“He unfortunately owed a slight amount of money, miss — as you, perhaps, be aware on, and our employers is in, deep. So, as soon as they heard what had happened, they sent us down to arrest the dead corpse, and we have done it.”

Amazement, horror, fear, struggled together in the shocked mind of Lady Isabel. Arrest the dead. She had never heard of a like calamity: nor could she have believed in such. Arrest it for what purpose? What to do? To disfigure it? — to sell it? With a panting heart and ashy lips, she turned from the room. Mrs. Mason happened to be passing near the stairs, and Isabel flew to her, laying hold of her with both hands, in her terror, as she burst into a fit of nervous tears.

“Those men — in there!” she gasped.

“What men, my lady?” returned Mrs. Mason, surprised.

“I don’t know; I don’t know. I think they are going to stop there; they say they have taken papa.”

After a pause of bewildered astonishment, the housekeeper left her standing where she was, and went to the earl’s chamber, to see if she could fathom the mystery of the words. Isabel leaned against the balustrades; partly for support, partly that she seemed afraid to stir from them; and the ominous disturbances downstairs reached her ears. Strangers, interlopers, appeared to be in the hall, talking vehemently, and complaining in bitter tones. More and more terrified, she held her breath to listen.

“Where’s the good of your seeing the young lady?” cried the butler, in a tone of remonstrance. “She knows nothing about the earl’s affairs; she is in grief enough just now, without any other worry.”

“I will see her,” returned a dogged voice. “If she’s too start-up and mighty to come down and answer a question or two, why I’ll find my way on to her. Here we are a shameful crowd of us, swindled out of our own, told there’s nobody we can speak to; nobody here but the young lady, and she must not be troubled. She didn’t find it trouble to help to spend our money. She has got no honor and feelings of a lady, if she don’t come and speak to us. There.”

Repressing her rebellious emotions, Lady Isabel glided partly down the staircase, and softy called to the butler. “What is all this?” she asked. “I must know.”

“Oh, my lady, don’t go amongst those rough men! You can’t do any good; pray go back before they see you. I have sent for Mr. Carlyle, and expect him here momentarily.”

“Did Papa owe them all money?” she said, shivering.

“I’m afraid he did, my lady.”

She went swiftly on; and passing through the few stragglers in the hall, entered the dining-room, where the chief mass had congregated, and the hubbub was loudest. All anger, at least external anger, was hushed at her sight. She looked so young, so innocent, so childlike in her pretty morning dress of peach-colored muslin, her fair face shaded by its falling curls, so little fit to combat with, or understand their business, that instead of pouring forth complaints, they hushed them into silence.

“I heard some one calling out that I ought to see you,” she began, her agitation causing the words to come forth in a jerking manner. “What did you want with me?”

Then they poured forth their complaints, but not angrily, and she listened till she grew sick. There were many and formidable claims; promissory notes and I O Us, overdue bills and underdue bills; heavy outstanding debts of all sorts, and trifles, comparatively speaking, for housekeeping, servants’ liveries, out-door servants’ wages, bread and meat.

What was Isabel Vane to answer? What excuse to offer? What hope or promise to give? She stood in bewilderment, unable to speak, turning from one to the other, her sweet eyes full of pity and contrition.

“The fact is, young lady,” spoke up one who bore the exterior of a gentleman, “we should not have come down troubling you — at least, I can answer for myself — but his lordship’s men of business, Warburton & Ware, to whom many of us hastened last evening, told us there would not be a shilling for anybody unless it could be got from furniture. When it comes to that, it is ‘first come, first served,’ and I got down by morning light, and levied an execution.”

“Which was levied before you came,” put in a man who might be brother to the two upstairs, to judge by his nose. “But what’s such furniture as this to our claims — if you come to combine ’em? No more than a bucket of water is to the Thames.”

“What can I do?” shivered Lady Isabel. “What is it you wish me to do? I have no money to give you, I—”

“No, miss,” broke in a quiet, pale man; “if report tells me, you are worse wronged than we are, for you won’t have a roof to put your head under, or a guinea to call your own.”

“He has been a scoundrel to everybody,” interrupted an intemperate voice; “he has ruined thousands.”

The speech was hissed down; even they were not men gratuitously to insult a delicate young lady.

“Perhaps you’ll just answer us a question, miss,” persisted the voice, in spite of the hisses. “Is there any ready money that can —”

But another person had entered the room — Mr. Carlyle. He caught sight of the white face and trembling hands of Isabel, and interrupted the last speaker with scant ceremony.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, in a tone of authority. “What do you want?”

“If you are a friend of the late peer’s, you ought to know what we want,” was the response. “We want our debts paid.”

“But this is not the place to come to,” returned Mr. Carlyle; “your coming here flocking in this extraordinary manner, will do no good. You must go to Warburton & Ware.”

“We have been to them and received their answer — a cool assurance that there’ll be nothing for anybody.”

“At any rate, you’ll get nothing here,” observed Mr. Carlyle, to the assembly, collectively. “Allow me to request that you leave the house at once.”

It was little likely that they would for him, and they said it.

“Then I warn you of the consequences of a refusal,” quietly said Mr. Carlyle; “you are trespassing upon a stranger’s property. This house is not Lord Mount Severn’s; he sold it some time back.”

They knew better. Some laughed, and said these tricks were stale.

“Listen, gentlemen,” rejoined Mr. Carlyle, in the plain, straightforward manner that carried its own truth. “To make an assertion that could be disproved when the earl’s affairs come to be investigated, would be simply foolish. I give you my word of honor as a gentleman — nay, as a fellow-man — that this estate, with the house and all it contains, passed months ago, from the hands of Lord Mount Severn; and, during his recent sojourn here, he was a visitor in it. Go and ask his men of business.”

“Who purchased it?” was the inquiry.

“Mr. Carlyle, of West Lynne. Some of you may possibly know him by reputation.”

Some of them did.

“A cute young lawyer,” observed a voice; “as his father was before him.”

“I am he,” proceeded Mr. Carlyle; “and, being a ‘cute lawyer,’ as you do me the honor to decide, you cannot suppose I should risk my money upon any sale not perfectly safe and legal. I was not an agent in the affair; I employed agents; for it was my own money that I invested, and East Lynne is mine.”

“Is the purchase money paid over?” inquired more than one.

“It was paid over at the time — last June.”

“What did Lord Mount Severn do with the money?”

“I do not know,” replied Mr. Carlyle. “I am not cognizant of Lord Mount Severn’s private affairs.”

Significant murmurs arose. “Strange that the earl should stop two or three months at a place that wasn’t his.”

“It may appear so to you, but allow me to explain,” returned Mr. Carlyle. “The earl expressed a wish to pay East Lynne a few days’ visit, by way of farewell, and I acceded. Before the few days were over, he was taken ill, and remained, from that time, too ill to quit it. This very day — this day, gentlemen, as we stand here, was at length fixed for his departure.”

“And you tell us you bought the furniture?”

“Everything as it stands. You need not doubt my word, for the proofs will be forthcoming. East Lynne was in the market for sale; I heard of it, and became the purchaser — just as I might have bought an estate from any of you. And now, as this is my house, and you have no claim upon me, I shall be obliged to you to withdraw.”

“Perhaps you’ll claim the horses and carriages next, sir,” cried the man with the hooked nose.

Mr. Carlyle raised his head haughtily. “What is mine is mine, legally purchased and paid for — a fair, just price. The carriages and horses I have nothing to do with; Lord Mount Severn brought them down with him.”

“And I have got a safe watcher over them in the out premises, to see as they don’t run away,” nodded the man, complacently; “and if I don’t mistake, there’s a safe watcher over something else upstairs.”

“What a cursed scoundrel Mount Severn was.”

“Whatever he may have been, it does not give you the right to outrage the feelings of his daughter,” warmly interrupted Mr. Carlyle; “and I should have thought that men, calling themselves Englishmen, would have disdained the shame. Allow me, Lady Isabel,” he added, imperatively taking her hand to lead her from the room. “I will remain and deal with this business.”

But she hesitated and stopped. The injury her father had done these men was telling painfully on her sense of right, and she essayed to speak a word of apology, of sorrow; she thought she ought to do so; she did not like them to deem her quite heartless. But it was a painful task, and the color went and came in her pale face, and her breath was labored with the excess of her tribulation.

“I am very sorry,” she stammered; and with the effort of speaking, emotion quite got the better of her, and she burst into tears. “I did not know anything of all this; my father’s affairs were not spoken of before me. I believe I have not anything; if I had, I would divide it amongst you as equally as I could. But, should the means ever be in my power — should money ever be mine, I will thankfully pay all your claims.”

All your claims! Lady Isabel little thought what that “all” would comprise. However, such promises, made at such a moment, fell heedlessly upon the ear. Scarcely one present but felt sympathy and sorrow for her, and Mr. Carlyle drew her from the room. He closed the door upon the noisy crew, and then sobs came forth hysterically.

“I am so grieved, Lady Isabel! Had I foreseen this annoyance, you should have been spared it. Can you go upstairs alone, or shall I call Mrs. Mason?”

“Oh, yes! I can go alone; I am not ill, only frightened and sick. This is not the worst,” she shivered. “There are two men up — up — with papa.”

“Up with papa.” Mr. Carlyle was puzzled. He saw that she was shaking from head to foot, as she stood before him.

“I cannot understand it, and it terrifies me,” she continued, attempting an explanation. “They are sitting in the room, close to him: they have taken him, they say.”

A blank, thunderstruck pause. Mr. Carlyle looked at her — he did not speak; and then he turned and looked at the butler, who was standing near. But the man only responded by giving his head a half shake, and Mr. Carlyle saw that it was an ominous one.

“I will clear the house of these,” he said to Lady Isabel, pointing back to the dining-room, “and then join you upstairs.”

“Two ruffians, sir, and they have got possession of the body,” whispered the butler in Mr. Carlyle’s ear, as Lady Isabel departed. “They obtained entrance to the chamber by a sly, deceitful trick, saying they were the undertaker’s men, and that he can’t be buried unless their claims are paid, if it’s for a month to come. It has upset all our stomachs, sir; Mrs. Mason while telling me — for she was the first one to know it — was as sick as she could be.”

At present Mr. Carlyle returned to the dining-room, and bore the brunt of the anger of those savages, and it may be said, ill-used men. Not that it was vented upon him — quite the contrary — but on the memory of the unhappy peer, who lay overhead. A few had taken the precaution to insure the earl’s life, and they were the best off. They left the house after a short space of time; for Mr. Carlyle’s statement was indisputable, and they knew the law better than to remain, trespassers on his property.

But the custodians of the dead could not be got rid of. Mr. Carlyle proceeded to the death-chamber, and examined their authority. A similar case had never occurred under his own observation, though it had under his father’s, and Mr. Carlyle remembered hearing of it. The body of a church dignitary, who had died deeply in debt, was arrested as it was being carried through the cloisters to its grave in the cathedral. These men, sitting over Lord Mount Severn, enforced heavy claims; and there they must sit until the arrival of Mr. Vane from Castle Marling — now the Earl of Mount Severn.

On the following morning, Sunday, Mr. Carlyle proceeded again to East Lynne, and found, to his surprise, that there was no arrival. Isabel sat in the breakfast-room alone, the meal on the table untouched, and she shivering — as it seemed — on a low ottoman before the fire. She looked so ill that Mr. Carlyle could not forbear remarking upon it.

“I have not slept, and I am very cold,” she answered. “I did not close my eyes all night, I was so terrified.”

“Terrified at what?” he asked.

“At those men,” she whispered. “It is strange that Mr. Vane has not come.”

“Is the post in?”

“I don’t know,” she apathetically replied. “I have received nothing.”

She had scarcely spoke when the butler entered with his salver full of letters, most of them bearing condolence with Lady Isabel. She singled out one and hastened to open it, for it bore the Castle Marling post-mark. “It is Mrs. Vane’s handwriting,” she remarked to Mr. Carlyle.

CASTLE MARLING, Saturday.

“MY DEAR ISABEL— I am dreadfully grieved and shocked at the news conveyed in Mr. Carlyle’s letter to my husband, for he has gone cruising in his yacht, and I opened it. Goodness knows where he may be, round the coast somewhere, but he said he should be home for Sunday, and as he is pretty punctual in keeping his word, I expect him. Be assured he will not lose a moment in hastening to East Lynne.

“I cannot express what I feel for you, and am too bouleversee to write more. Try and keep up your spirits, and believe me, dear Isabel, with sincere sympathy and regret, faithfully yours,

“EMMA MOUNT SEVERN.”

The color came into Isabel’s pale cheek when she read the signature. She thought, had she been the writer, she should, in that first, early letter, have still signed herself Emma Vane. Isabel handed the note to Mr. Carlyle. “It is very unfortunate,” she sighed.

Mr. Carlyle glanced over it as quickly as Mrs. Vane’s illegible writing allowed him, and drew in his lips in a peculiar manner when he came to the signature. Perhaps at the same thought which had struck Isabel.

“Had Mrs. Vane been worth a rush, she would have come herself, knowing your lonely situation,” he uttered, impulsively.

Isabel leaned her head upon her hand. All the difficulties and embarrassments of her position came crowding on her mind. No orders had been given in preparation for the funeral, and she felt that she had no right to give any. The earls of Mount Severn were buried at Mount Severn; but to take her father thither would involve great expense; would the present earl sanction that? Since the previous morning, she seemed to have grown old in the world’s experience; her ideas were changed, the bent of her thoughts had been violently turned from its course. Instead of being a young lady of high position, of wealth and rank, she appeared to herself more in the light of an unfortunate pauper and interloper in the house she was inhabiting. It has been the custom in romance to present young ladies, especially if they be handsome and interesting, as being entirely oblivious of matter-of-fact cares and necessities, supremely indifferent to future prospects of poverty — poverty that brings hunger and thirst and cold and nakedness; but, be assured, this apathy never existed in real life. Isabel Vane’s grief for her father — whom, whatever may have been the aspect he wore for others, she had deeply loved and reverenced — was sharply poignant; but in the midst of that grief, and of the singular troubles his death had brought forth, she could not shut her eyes to her own future. Its blank uncertainty, its shadowed-forth embarrassments did obtrude themselves and the words of that plain-speaking creditor kept ringing in her ears: “You won’t have a roof to put your head under, or a guinea to call your own.” Where was she to go? With whom to live? She was in Mr. Carlyle’s house now. And how was she to pay the servants? Money was owing to them all.

“Mr. Carlyle, how long has this house been yours?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“It was in June that the purchase was completed. Did Lord Mount Severn never tell you he had sold it to me?”

“No, never. All these things are yours?” glancing round the room.

“The furniture was sold with the house. Not these sort of things,” he added, his eye falling on the silver on the breakfast table; “not the plate and linen.”

“Not the plate and linen! Then those poor men who were here yesterday have a right to them,” she quickly cried.

“I scarcely know. I believe the plate goes with the entail — and the jewels go also. The linen cannot be of consequence either way.”

“Are my clothes my own?”

He smiled as he looked at her; smiled at her simplicity, and assured her that they were nobody’s else.

“I did not know,” she sighed; “I did not understand. So many strange things have happened in the last day or two, that I seem to understand nothing.”

Indeed, she could not understand. She had no definite ideas on the subject of this transfer of East Lynne to Mr. Carlyle; plenty of indefinite ones, and they were haunting her. Fears of debt to him, and of the house and its contents being handed over to him in liquidation, perhaps only partial, were working in her brain.

“Does my father owe you any money?” she breathed in a timid tone.

“Not any,” he replied. “Lord Mount Severn was never indebted to me in his life.”

“Yet you purchased East Lynne?”

“As any one else might have done,” he answered, discerning the drift of her thoughts. “I was in search of an eligible estate to invest money in, and East Lynne suited me.”

“I feel my position, Mr. Carlyle,” she resumed, the rebellious fears forcing themselves to her eyes; “thus to be intruding upon you for a shelter. And I cannot help myself.”

“You can help grieving me,” he gently answered, “which you do much when you talk of obligation. The obligation is on my side, Lady Isabel; and when I express a hope that you will continue at East Lynne while it can be of service, however prolonged that period may be, I assure you, I say it in all sincerity.”

“You are very kind,” she faltered; “and for a few days; until I can think; until — Oh, Mr. Carlyle, are papa’s affairs really so bad as they said yesterday?” she broke off, her perplexities recurring to her with vehement force. “Is there nothing left?”

Now Mr. Carlyle might have given the evasive assurance that there would be plenty left, just to tranquilize her. But to have used deceit with her would have pricked against every feeling of his nature; and he saw how implicitly she relied upon his truth.

“I fear things are not very bright,” he answered. “That is, so far as we can see at present. But there may have been some settlement effected for you that you do not know of. Warburton & Ware —”

“No,” she interrupted: “I never heard of a settlement, and I am sure there is none. I see the worst plainly. I have no home, no home and no money. This house is yours; the town house and Mount Severn go to Mr. Vane; and I have nothing.”

“But surely Mr. Vane will be delighted to welcome you to your old home. The houses pass to him — it almost seems as though you had the greater right in them, than he or Mrs. Vane.”

“My home with them!” she retorted, as if the words had stung her. “What are you saying, Mr. Carlyle?”

“I beg your pardon, Lady Isabel. I should not have presumed to touch upon these points myself, but —”

“Nay, I think I ought to beg yours,” she interrupted, more calmly. “I am only grateful for the interest you take in them — the kindness you have shown. But I could not make my home with Mrs. Vane.”

Mr. Carlyle rose. He could do no good by remaining, and did not think it well to intrude longer. He suggested that it might be more pleasant if Isabel had a friend with her; Mrs. Ducie would no doubt be willing to come, and she was a kind, motherly woman.

Isabel shook her head with a passing shudder. “Have strangers, here, with — all — that — in papa’s chamber!” she uttered. “Mrs. Ducie drove over yesterday, perhaps to remain — I don’t know; but I was afraid of questions, and would not see her. When I think of — that — I feel thankful that I am alone.”

The housekeeper stopped Mr. Carlyle as he was going out.

“Sir, what is the news from Castle Marling? Pound said there was a letter. Is Mr. Vane coming?”

“He was out yachting. Mrs. Vane expected him home yesterday, so it is to be hoped he will be here today.”

“Whatever will be done if he does not come?” she breathed. “The leaden coffin ought to be soldered down, for you know, air, the state he was in when he died.”

“It can be soldered down without Mr. Vane.”

“Of course — without Mr. Vane. It’s not that, sir. Will those men allow it to be done? The undertakers were here this morning at daybreak, and those men intimated that they were not going to lose sight of the dead. The words sounded significant to us, but we asked them no questions. Have they a right to prevent it, sir?”

“Upon my word I cannot tell,” replied Mr. Carlyle. “The proceeding is so rare a one, that I know little what right of law they have or have not. Do not mention this to Lady Isabel. And when Mr. Va — when Lord Mount Severn arrives, send down to apprise me of it.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30