Mr. and Mrs. Jardine went back to their Wiltshire parsonage after a two days’ visit, and Ida had her boy all to herself. His education, from a classical and mathematical point of view, had only begun when he went to John Jardine; but the foundations of education, the development of thought and imagination had begun long ago at Les Fontaines, when Ida and he took their long wintry rambles together, and the girl talked to the child of all things in heaven and earth, imparting in the easiest way much of that information which she had acquired as pupil and teacher in the educational mill at Mauleverer. Beyond learning to read and to write, and the most elementary forms of arithmetic, this oral instruction was all the education which Vernie had received up to the time of his leaving home; but then what a large range of information can be imparted by an intelligent woman who reads a great deal, and who reads with the student’s deep love of knowledge. Vernon, without being a prodigy, like the infant Goethe, or that wondrous product of paternal scholarship, John Stuart Mill, knew more about things in general, from the course of the planets to the constitution of the glowworms in the hedges, than many full-grown undergraduates. Flowers and ferns, shells and minerals, had been his playthings. His sister had taught him the nature and attributes of all the animals and birds he loved, or slaughtered; and then his imagination had been fed upon Shakespeare and Scott, Dickens and Goldsmith. He had derived his first vivid impressions of history from Shakespeare and Scott, his knowledge of a wide range of life outside his own home from Dickens; and with that knowledge a quickened sympathy with the joys and sorrows of the humbler classes. All that Vernon knew of the struggles of the lower middle classes was derived from that great panorama of life which Charles Dickens painted for us. His own small experiences of village life had taught the boy very little; for he had only seen the rustic from that outside and smoothly varnished aspect which the tiller of the soil presents to the squire.
And now the boy had come home, after an absence of some months, and he wanted to absorb Ida from morning till night She must walk and drive with him, read to him, play with him, be interested in his dogs, his guns, his fishing-tackle, every detail of his busy young life.
Ida was never happier than when thus occupied. The boy seemed to her the incarnate spirit of youth, and joy, and hope, and all those bright impulses which wear out in ourselves at so early a stage of life’s journey that we are very glad to taste them vicariously in the unspoiled ardour of childhood. To be with Vernon was to escape from the narrowness of her own fettered life, to forget its disappointments, its disillusions, its one deep incurable regret — regret for her own mad folly, which had bartered freedom for a sordid hope — folly as mad as Esau’s when he sold his birthright — regret for him who loved her too late.
Unhappily, even her unselfish delight in her brother’s society was not unalloyed with pain. She never forgot her duty as a wife, nor failed in any act of attention to her husband. And yet Brian’s morbid jealousy of the boy was but too evident. He rarely spoke of Vernon without a sneer, when he and his wife were alone; although he was careful not to say anything uncivil before Lady Palliser. He scoffed at the little lad’s position, as if it had been an offence in the child himself — called him the microscopic baronet, the baby thane, laughed with bitterest laughter at any little touch of arrogance which clouded the natural sweetness of the boy’s character.
Ida endured this morbid jealousy with a patience that was almost heroic. She saw that her husband was ill, and that this mysterious malady of his, which had at first seemed to her sheer hypochondriasis, was only too real. It was a malady which affected the mind more than the body. Brian’s character had undergone a complete change since his illness. He who had been of old so easy-tempered, so lively, was now melancholy and irritable, at times garrulous to a degree that was painful to his hearers, keenly resentful of trifles, always fancying himself neglected or slighted.
In vain did Lady Palliser and Ida urge the necessity of medical advice. Brian obstinately refused to see the local apothecary; and, as there was nothing tangible in his illness and he was able to be about all day, to go out of doors, and do pretty much as he pleased, there was no excuse for calling in the doctor without his permission.
‘If I felt that I wanted advice, I would go up to town and see Mallison,’ he said; ‘but there is nothing amiss with me, except a disappointed life. I begin to feel that I am a failure. Other fellows of my age have passed me in the race; and it is hard at nine-and-twenty to feel oneself beaten.’
‘But, Brian,’ his wife answered gently, ‘don’t you think if your contemporaries have outstripped you, it is because they have tried harder than you? Remember what St. Paul says about the one who obtaineth the prize.’
‘For Heaven’s sake, don’t preach!’ cried Brian, irritably. I tell you I tried hard enough; tried — yes, slaved night after night; scribbling articles for those infernal magazines, to get my manuscript returned with thanks after nearly a twelve-month’s detention; spelling over dry-as-dust briefs for a guinea fee, in order to post up some bloated Queen’s Counsel, who treated me as if I were dirt, and pretended not to know my name. I tell you, Ida, the Bar is a sickening profession; literature is worse; all the professions are played out, Europe is overcrowded with educated men; they swarm like aphides in a hot summer — your single fly the progenitor of a quintillion of living creatures. When I see the men in their wigs and gowns, hurrying up and down the Temple courts, swarming on all the staircases, choking up the doors of the law-courts, they remind me of the busy, hungry creatures on an ant-heap.
“Every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys, Every gate is thronged with suitors, all the markets overflow.”
He was walking up and down the room in an agitated way, angry, excited beyond the occasion.
‘But in your case, Brian, it seems to me that the path has been made so smooth. With such an independence as ours, it must be so easy to get on.’
‘I thank you for reminding me how much I owe your father,’ sneered her husband.
‘I was not thinking especially of my father. You owe as much to your cousin.’
‘Yes, my cousin has been vastly generous — damnably generous; but if I had married any other woman, do you suppose he would have done as much? Of course, I know it was for your sake he gave me that income. Was he ever so liberal before, do you think? No, he dribbled out an occasional hundred or two when I was up a tree, but nothing more. It was for your sake his purse-strings relaxed.’
‘You have no right to say that,’ Ida answered indignantly. ‘I have a right to say what I think to my wife. I have not forgotten what you said to me at the hotel that day. You told me to my face that you loved another man. Do you think I was such a dullard as not to guess that man’s name? You fell in love with Wendover of the Abbey, before you saw him; and your innocent love for the shadow grew into guilty love for the man, after you were my wife. I knew all about it; but I was not going to let you give me the slip. I have known all along that I am nothing to you, that you despise me, detest me, perhaps; and that knowledge has made me what I am — a broken, blighted man, a wreck, at nine-and-twenty.’
‘Oh, Brian, this is too cruel! Have I ever failed in my duty to you?’
‘Damn duty!’ cried Brian, savagely. ‘I wanted your love, not your duty — love such as I thought you gave me in those autumn days by the river. Great God, how happy I was in those days! I hadn’t a sixpence; I was up to my eyes in debt; but I thought you loved me, and that we were going to be happy in our garret till good fortune tumbled down the chimney.’
‘I don’t think a garret would have suited you long, Brian, had I been ever so devoted. You are too much of a sybarite.’
‘I should have been happy with you. I should have thought myself in Eden. Well, fate never meant me to be happy. I am a wretch, judged before I was born, foredoomed to misery in this world and the next. Yes, I begin to think Calvin was right — there are some creatures predestined to damnation. Before ever the stars spun into their places, when all the suns and moons and planets were rings of fiery gas revolving in space, my doom was already written in the book of fate.
It had been a common thing of late for Brian to ramble on in such despondent strains as these, half angry, half despairing. Ida was supremely patient with him, sometimes soothing him, sometimes arguing with him; yet hardly knowing how much of his talk arose from real gloom of mind, or how much was sheer rhodomontade. The hours which she spent with him were intensely painful, and as the days went by he became more and more exacting, more and more resentful of her absence, and grudgingly jealous of Vernon.
Another cause for pain was Ida’s growing conviction that her husband’s frequent doses of soda and brandy, and the champagne which he drank at dinner, and the port or Burgundy which he took after dinner, had a great deal to do with his altered mental condition. Painful as it was to speak of such a thing, she took courage one morning, and told him plainly that she believed he was suffering from, the effect of habitual — almost unconscious — intemperance.
‘You are taking soda and brandy all day long. You have brandy in your bedroom at night, Brian,’ she said. ‘I am sure you can have no idea how much you take in the course of the twenty-four hours.’
‘I have no idea that I am a drunkard, if that’s what you mean,’ he answered, white with rage; and then he burst into a torrent of abuse — such language as she had never heard from mortal lips until that hour, and his wife fled, shuddering and terror-stricken, from the room.
When next they met he cowed before her with a craven air, and made no allusion to this scene. But after this she observed that he pretended to drink less, and had a crafty way of getting his glass refilled at dinner. He no longer kept a brandy bottle on the table beside his bed, as he had done heretofore, on the pretence that a little weak brandy and water helped him to sleep, nor did the soda-water bottles and spirit decanter adorn one of the tables in his study; but more than once his wife met him creeping to the dining-room with a stealthy air to supply himself at the sideboard, and when she went into his room at night to see if he slept, his fevered breath reeked of brandy. It seemed to her later, as time went on, that even his garments exhaled spirituous odours.
It was not long after this that he began to talk mysteriously of some trouble which menaced him, which gradually took the shape of a criminal prosecution overhanging him. He had been falsely accused of some awful crime — some nameless, unspeakable offence — hateful as the gates of hell. He was innocent, but his enemies were legion; and at any moment a detective might be sent to Wimperfield to arrest him. One evening, in the summer twilight after dinner, he took it into his head that one of the footmen — a man whose face ought to have been thoroughly familiar to him — was a detective in disguise. He flew at the worthy young fellow in a furious rage, and the butler had hard work to prevent his doing poor John Thomas a mischief. But when the lamps were brought in, Brian perceived his mistake, and apologised to the footman for his violence.
‘You don’t know what devils those detectives are,’ he said, deprecatingly; ‘they can make themselves look like anybody. And if they once get hold of me, the case will be tried at Westminster Hall. It will take weeks to try, and all the Bar will be engaged; and then it will have to go to the House of Lords. There has not been such a case within the last century. All Europe will ring with it.’
‘Dear Brian, I am sure this is a delusion of yours,’ said Ida, trying to soothe him; ‘you cannot have done anything so wicked.’
‘Done! no, I am as innocent as a baby; but the whole Bar — the Bench too — is in league against me. They’ll make out their case, depend upon it. “It’s a case for a jury;” that’s what the Lord Chancellor said when I told him about it.’
After this there could be no doubt that there was actual mental disturbance. Lady Palliser sent for the local medical man, who had very little difficulty in diagnosing the case. Sleeplessness, restless nights, tossing from side to side, an utter inability to keep still, horrible dreams, impaired vision, clouds floating before the eyes — these symptoms Mr. Fosbroke heard from the wife. The patient himself was obstinately silent about his sensations, declared that there was nothing the matter with him, and let the doctor know he considered his visit an impertinent intrusion.
‘I had a touch of brain fever early in the year,’ he said. ‘I had the best advice in London during my illness, and afterwards. I know exactly how to treat myself. The symptoms which alarm my wife are nothing but the natural reaction after a severe shock to the nervous system. The tonics I am taking will soon pull me up again; but as I am now under a special treatment by Dr. Mallison, of Harley Street, you will under, stand that I don’t care about further advice.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ replied the medical man, meekly. ‘But I believe it would be a satisfaction to Lady Palliser and to Mrs. Wendover both if you would do me the honour to consult me, and allow me to look after you while you are here, I could place myself under Dr. Mallison’s instructions, if you like.’
‘No, there is no necessity. I tell you I know exactly what is amiss, and how to manage my own health.’
Mr. Fosbroke argued the point, but in vain. Brian would not even allow him to feel his pulse. But the doctor knew very well what was amiss, and told Mrs. Wendover, with delicate circumlocution, that her husband was suffering from an imprudent use of stimulants for some time past.
‘That is what I feared,’ said Ida; but it is too dreadful. It is the very last thing I expected. I thought nobody drank nowadays.’
‘Very few people get drunk, my dear Mrs. Wendover,’ replied the doctor; ‘but, unhappily, though there is very little drunkenness, there is a great deal of what is called “pegging”— an intermittent kind of tippling which goes on all day long, beginning very early and ending very late. A man, whose occupation in life is headwork, begins to think he wants a stimulant — begins by having his brandy and soda at twelve o’clock perhaps; then finds he can’t get on without it after eleven; then takes it before breakfast — in lieu of breakfast; and goes on with brandy and soda at intervals till dinner-time. At dinner he has no appetite, tries to create one with a bottle of dry champagne, eats very little, but dines on the champagne, feels an unaccountable depression of spirits later on in the evening, and takes more brandy, without soda this time; and so on, and so on; till, after a period of sleeplessness, he begins to have ugly dreams, then to see waking visions, hear imaginary voices, stumble upon the edge of an imaginary precipice. If he is an elderly man he gets shaky in the lower limbs, then his hands become habitually tremulous, especially in the early morning, when he is like a figure hung on wires — and so on, and so on; and unless he pulls himself up by a great moral effort, the chances are that he will have a sharp attack of delirium tremens.’
‘You do not fear such an attack for my husband?
‘Mr. Wendover is a young man, but he has evidently abused his constitution; there is no knowing what may happen if you don’t take care of him. Alcohol is a cumulative poison, and that “pegging” I have told you of is diabolical. Nature throws off an over-dose of alcohol, but the daily, hourly dose eats into the system.’
‘How am I to take care of him?’ asked Ida, despairingly.
‘You must keep wine and spirits away from him, except in extreme moderation.’
‘What! speak to the butler? Tell him that my husband is a drunkard?’
‘You need not go quite so far as that, but it will be necessary to cut off the supplies somehow, and to substitute a nourishing diet for stimulants.’
‘Yes, if he could eat: but he has no appetite — he eats hardly anything.’
‘Unhappily, that is one of the symptoms of his disease, and the most difficult to overcome. But you must do your utmost to make him eat, and to prevent his getting brandy. A little light claret or Rhine wine may be allowed; nothing more. I will send you a sedative which you can give him at bedtime.’
‘I do not think he will take anything of that kind. He has set his face against accepting your advice.’
‘I believe if you were to take a decided tone, he would succumb; if not, you had better ask Dr. Mallison to come down and see him. It will be a costly visit, and money thrown away, as the case is perfectly simple; but I dare say you will not mind that.’
‘I should mind nothing if he could be cured. It is horrible to see such ruin of body and mind in one so young,’ Ida answered sadly.
‘Well, you must see what influence you can exercise over him for his own good. I will call every other day, and hear how you are getting on with him; and if you fail, we must summon Dr. Mallison.’
Ida spoke to the butler. It was a hard thing to do, and it seemed to her a kind of treachery against her husband — as if she were inflicting everlasting disgrace upon him in secret, like a midnight assassin, who stabs his victim in the back. Her voice trembled, and her face was deadly pale as she spoke to the butler, an old servant who had been in the household from his boyhood.
‘Rogers, I want you to be a little more careful in your arrangements about wine and spirits,’ she began, falteringly. ‘Mr. Wendover is in a low state of health — suffering from a nervous complaint, in fact; and we fear that he is taking too much brandy. Will you kindly try to prevent it?’
‘It will be very difficult, ma’am. Mr. Wendover gives his orders, and he expects to be obeyed.’
‘But upon this one point you must not obey him. You can say that you have Lady Palliser’s orders that no more brandy is to be brought up from the cellar. I shall tell her that I have told you this.’
‘Yes, ma’am. I was afraid too much brandy was being drunk, but it was not my place to mention it,’ said Rogers, politely.
He would have said the same, perhaps, had the house been on fire.
Neither sherry nor champagne was served at dinner that day, and the claret which was offered Mr. Wendover was of a very thin quality.
‘I’ll take champagne,’ he said to the butler.
‘There is not any upstairs, sir.’
Brian turned angrily upon the man, and Ida, pale but resolute, came to the rescue.
‘We do not drink champagne at dinner when we are alone, Brian,’ she said; ‘and I don’t think it is quite fair to Vernie’s cellars that Moët should be served every day because you are here.
‘Vernon’s cellars! Ah, I forgot that we are all here on sufferance, and, that I am drinking Vernon’s wine.’
‘You may have as much of my champagne as you like,’ said Vernie, getting very red; ‘but I don’t think it does you any good, for you are always so cross afterwards.’
Brian looked at the boy with a savage gleam in his eyes, and muttered something, but made no audible reply.
‘I’ll go back to my chambers to-morrow,’ he said: ‘I can have a bottle of Moët there without being under an obligation to anybody. Give me some brandy and soda,’ he said to the butler; ‘I can’t drink this verjuice.’
‘There is no brandy, sir.’
‘Oh! Sir Vernon’s cognac is to be kept sacred, too. I congratulate you, Vernon, upon having two such economical guardians. Your minority will be a period of considerable saving.’
He made no further remonstrance, drank neither claret nor hock, ate hardly anything, but sat through the dinner in sullen silence, and went off to his room directly Lady Palliser had said grace, leaving the others to take their strawberries and cream alone. Vernon was what Kogers the butler called ‘a mark on’ strawberries and cream.
When Vernie had finished his strawberries, Ida went to her husband’s study; but the door was locked, and when she asked to be admitted Brian refused.
‘I’d rather be alone, thank you,’ he answered, curtly. ‘I have an article to write for one of the legal papers. You can amuse yourself with the baronet. I know you are always glad to be free.’
‘Come for a stroll in the park, Brian,’ she pleaded gently, pitying him with all her heart, more tenderly inclined to him in his decay and degradation than she had been in his prime of manhood, before these fatal habits began. ‘Do come with us, dear. We won’t walk further than you like; it’s a lovely evening.’
‘I hate a summer twilight,’ returned Brian; ‘it always gives me the horrors — a creepy time, when all sorts of loathsome creatures are abroad — bats, and owls, and stag-beetles, cockchafers, and other abominations. Can’t you let me alone?’ he went on, angrily. ‘I tell you I have work to do.’
Ida left him upon this, without a word. What was she to do? This was her first experience of a mind diseased, and it seemed to her worse than any trouble that had ever touched her before. She had stood beside her father’s death-bed, and the hair of her flesh had stood up at the awful moment of dissolution, when it was as if verily a spirit had passed before her face, calling her beloved from the known to the unknown. Yet in the awe and horror of death there had been holiness and comfort, a whisper of hope leading her thoughts to higher regions, a promise that this pitiful, inexplicable parting was not the end. This dissolution in the living man, this palpable progress of degradation, visible day by day and hour by hour, was worse than death. It meant the decay and min of a mind, the wreck of an immortal soul. What place could there be in heaven for the drunkard, who had dribbled away his reason, his power to discriminate between right and wrong, by perpetual doses of brandy? what could be pleaded in extenuation of this gradual and deliberate suicide?
Ida went slowly downstairs, her soul steeped in gloom, seeing no ray of light on the horizon; for with the most earnest desire to save her erring husband, she felt herself powerless to help him against himself. If he were denied the things he cared for at Wimperfield, there was little doubt that he would go back to his solitary chambers, where he was his own master. He was not so ill either in mind or body as to justify her in using actual restraint.
At the moment she thought of telegraphing for Aunt Betsy, whose firm manly mind might offer valuable aid in such a crisis: but she shrank from the idea of exposing her husband’s degradation even to his aunt. She did not want the family at Kingthorpe to know how low he had fallen. Mr. and Mrs. Jardine had been impressed by the change in him, and Bessie had harped upon his lost good looks, habitual irritability, and deteriorated manners; but neither had hinted at an inkling of the cause; and Ida hoped the hideous truth had been unsuspected by either. She decided, therefore, during those few minutes of meditation which she spent in the portico waiting for Vernon, that she would rely on her own intelligence, and upon professional aid rather than upon any family intervention. If she could, by her own strong hand, with the help of the London physician, lead her husband’s footsteps out of this Tophet into which he had sunk himself, she would spare no trouble, withhold no sacrifice, to effect his rescue, and she and her stepmother, the kindliest of women, would keep the secret between them.
Vernon came bounding out of the hall, eager for the accustomed evening ramble. This evening walk with the boy had been Ida’s happiest time of late, perhaps the only portion of her day in which she had enjoyed the sense of freedom from ever present anxiety, in which she had put away troubled thought. She had gone back to her duty meekly and resignedly when this time of respite was over, but with a sense of unspeakable woe. Wimperfield with its lighted windows, stone walls, and classic portico, had seemed to her only as a prison-house, a whited sepulchre, fair without and loathsome within.
Vernie was full of curiosity about that little scene at the dinner table. The boy had that quick perception of the minds and acts of others which is generally developed in a child who spends the greater part of his life with grown-up people; and he had been quite as conscious as his elders of the unpleasantness of the scene.
‘I hope Brian doesn’t think I’m stingy about the wine,’ he said; ‘he might drink it all for anything I should care. I don’t want it.’
‘I know, darling; but you were quite right in what you said at dinner. The wine does Brian harm, and that’s why mamma and I don’t want him to take any.’
‘Has it always done him harm?’ asked Vernon.
‘Always; that is, lately.’
‘Then why did you let him take so much — a whole bottle, sometimes two bottles — all to himself at dinner? I heard Rogers tell Mrs. Moggs about it.’
‘Rogers ought not to have given him so much.’
‘Oh! but Rogers said it wasn’t his place to make remarks, only he was very sorry for poor Mrs. Wendover — that’s you, you know — not Mrs. Wendover at Kingthorpe.’
‘Oh, Vernie, you were not listening?’
‘Of course not. I wasn’t listening on purpose; but I was in the lobby outside the housekeeper’s room, waiting for some grease for my shooting boots. I always grease them myself, you know, for nobody else does it properly; and Rogers said the brandy Mr. Wendover had drunk in three weeks would make Mrs. Moggs’ hair stand on end; but it couldn’t — could it? — when she wears a front. A front couldn’t stand on end,’ said Vernon, exploding at his own small joke, which, like most of the witticisms of childhood, was founded on the physical deficiencies of age.
‘Look, Vernie! there is going to be a lovely sunset,’ said Ida, anxious to change the conversation.
But Vernon’s inquiring mind was not satisfied.
‘Is it wicked to drink champagne and brandy?’ he asked.
‘Yes, dear, it is wicked to take anything which we know will do us harm. It would be wicked to take poison; and brandy is a kind of poison.’
‘Except for poor people, when they are ill; they always come to the vicarage for brandy when they are ill, and Mrs. Jardine gives them a little.’
‘Brandy is a medicine sometimes, but it is a poison if anyone takes too much of it — a poison that ruins body and soul. I hope Brian will not take any more; but we mustn’t talk about it, darling, above all to strangers.’
‘No, I shouldn’t talk of it to anybody but you, because I like Brian. He used to go fishing with me, and to be so good-natured, and to tell me funny stories, and do imitations of actors for me; but now he’s so cross. Is that the brandy?’
‘I’m afraid it is.’
‘Then I hate brandy.’
They were in the park by this time, wandering in the wildest part of the ground, where the bracken grew breast high in great sweeps of feathery green. They came to a spot on the edge of a hill where three or four noble old elms had been felled, and where a couple of men in smock frocks were sawing coffin boards.
‘What are those broad planks wanted for?’ the boy asked; ‘and why do you make them so short?’
‘They’re not uncommon short, Sir Vernon,’ the man answered, touching his hat; ‘the shortest on ’em is six foot. Them be for coffins, Sir Vernon.’
‘How horrid! I hope they won’t be wanted for ages,’ said the boy.
‘Not much chance o’ that, sir; there’s allus summun a wantin’ a weskit o’ this make,’ answered the man, with a grin, as Vernon and Ida went on, uncomfortably impressed by the idea of those two men sawing their coffin-boards in the calm, bright evening, with every articulation of the branching fern standing sharply out against the yellow light, as on the margin of a golden sea.
They rambled on, and presently Ida was repeating passages from those Shakespearian plays which had formed Vernon’s first introduction to English history, and of which he had never tired. Ida knew all the great speeches, and indeed a good many of the more famous scenes, by heart, and Vernon liked to hear them over and over again, alternately detesting the Lancastrians and pitying the Yorkists, or hating York and compassionating Lancaster, as the fortunes of war wavered. And then there was Richard the Second, more tenderly touched by Shakespeare than by Hume or Hallam; and Richard the Third, whose iniquities were made respectable by a kind of diabolical thoroughness; and that feebler villain John. Vernon was as familiar with them as if they had been flesh and blood acquaintances.
‘Cheap Jack knows Shakespeare as well as you do,’ said Vernon presently, when they had left the park by a wooden gate that opened into a patch of common land, which lay between the Wimperfield fence and Blackman’s Hanger.
‘Who is Cheap Jack?’ asked Ida absently.
‘The man you saw the night I came home, when Mr. Jardine was with us. Don’t you remember?’
‘The man in the cart — the showman? Yes, I know; but I did not see him.’
‘No; he hates the gentry, and women, too, I think. But he likes Shakespeare.’
‘I shouldn’t have thought he would have known anything about Shakespeare.’
‘Oh, but he does — better than you even. When he was mending my fishing-rod — you remember, don’t you? — I told you how clever he was at fishing-rods.’
‘Yes, I remember — it was the day you were out so long quite alone; and I was dreadfully frightened about you.’
‘Oh, but that was silly. Besides, I wasn’t alone — I was with Jack all day. And if I had been alone, I can take care of myself — I shall be twelve next birthday. Nobody would try to steal me now,’ said Vernon, drawing himself up and swaggering a little.
‘What, not even good Mrs. Brown? Well, no; I think you are too clever to be stolen. Still you must not go out again without Robert.’ (Robert was a youth of two-and-twenty, Sir Vernon’s body-guard and particular attendant, to whom the little baronet occasionally gave the go-by.) ‘Besides, I don’t think you ought to associate with such a person as this Cheap Jack — a vagabond stroller, whose past life nobody knows.’
‘Oh, but you don’t know what kind of man Jack is — he’s the cleverest man I ever knew — cleverer than Mr. Jardine; he knows everything. Let’s go up on the hanger.’
‘No, dear, it’s getting late; we must go home.’
‘No, we needn’t go home till we like — nobody wants us. Mamma will be asleep over her knitting — how she does sleep! — and she’ll wake up surprised when we go home, and say, “Gracious, is it ten o’clock? These summer evenings are so short!”’
‘But you ought to be in bed, Vernie.’
‘No, I oughtn’t. The thrushes haven’t gone to bed yet. Hark at that one singing his evening hymn! Do come just a wee bit further.’
They were at the foot of the hanger by this time, and now began to climb the slope. The atmosphere was balmy with the breath of the pines, and there was an almost tropical warmth in the wood — languorous, inviting to repose. The crescent moon hung pale above the tops of the trees, pale above that rosy flush of evening which filled the western sky.
‘What makes you think Jack so clever?’ inquired Ida, more for the sake of sustaining the conversation than from any personal interest in the subject.
‘Oh, because he knows everything. He told me all about Macbeth, the witches, don’t you know, and the ghost, and Mrs. — no, Lady Macbeth — walking in her sleep, and then he made my flesh creep — worse than you do when you talk about ghosts. And then he told me about Agamemnon, the same that’s in Homer. I haven’t begun Greek yet, but Mr. Jardine told me about him and Cly — Cly — what’s her name? — his wife. And then he told me about Africa and the black men, and about India, and tiger-hunts, and snakes, and the great mountains where there are tribes of wild monkeys; — I should so like to have a monkey, Ida! Can I have a monkey I And he told me about South America, just as if he had been there and seen it all.’
‘He must be a genius,’ said Ida, smiling.
‘Can I have a monkey?’
‘If your mother doesn’t object, and if we can get a nice one that won’t bite you.’
‘Oh, he wouldn’t bite me; I should be friends with him directly. When I am grown up I shall shoot tigers.’
‘I shall not like Mr. Cheap Jack if he puts such ideas into your head.’
‘Oh, but you must like him, Ida, for I mean to have him always for my friend; and when I come of age I shall go to the Rockies with him, and shoot moose and things.’
‘Oh, you unkind boy! is that all the happiness I am to have when you are grown up.’
‘You can come too.’
‘What, go about America with a Cheap Jack! What a dreadful fate for me!’
‘He is not dreadful — he is a splendid fellow.’
‘But if he hates women he would make himself disagreeable.’
‘Not to you. He would like you. I talked to him about you once, and he listened, and seemed so pleased, and made me tell him a lot more.’
‘Impertinent curiosity!’ said Ida, with a vexed air. ‘You are a very silly boy to talk about your relations to a man of that class.’
‘He is not a man of that class,’ retorted Vernon angrily; ‘besides I didn’t talk about my relations, as you call it. I only talked about you. When I told him about mamma he didn’t seem to listen. I could see that by his eyes, you know; but he made me go on talking about you, and asked me all kinds of questions.’
‘He is a very impertinent person.’
‘Hush, there he is, smoking outside his cottage,’ cried the ‘boy, pointing to a figure sitting on a rude bench in front of that hovel which had once sheltered Lord Pontifex’s under-keeper.
Ida saw a tall, broad-shouldered figure with a tawny face and a long brown beard. The face was half hidden under a slouched felt hat, the figure was clad in clumsy corduroy. Ida was just near enough to see that the outline of the face was good, when the man rose and went into his hut, shutting the door behind him.
‘Discourteous, to say the least of it,’ she exclaimed, laughing at Vernon’s disconcerted look.
‘I’ll make him open his door,’ said the boy, running towards the cottage; but Ida ran after him and stopped him midway.
‘Don’t, my pet,’ she said; ‘every man’s house is his castle, even Cheap Jack’s. Besides I have really no wish to make your friend’s acquaintance. Oh, Vernie,’ looking at her watch, ‘it’s a quarter-past nine! We must go home as fast as ever we can.’
‘He is a nasty disagreeable thing,’ said Vernon. ‘I did so want you to see the inside of his cottage. He has no end of books, and the handsomest fox terrier you ever saw — and such a lot of pipes, and black bear skins to put over his bed at night — such a jolly comfortable little den! I shall have one just like it in the park when I come of age.’
‘You talk of doing so many things when you come of age.’
‘Yes; and I mean to do them, every one; unless you and mother let me do them sooner. It’s a dreadful long time to wait till I’m twenty-one!’
‘I don’t think we are tyrants, or that we shall refuse you anything reasonable.’
‘Not a cottage in the park?’
‘No, not even a cottage in the park.’
They walked back at a brisk pace, by common and park, not loitering to look at anything, though the glades and hills and hollows were lovely in that dim half-light which is the darkness of summer. The new moon hung like a silver lamp in mid-heaven, and all the multitude of stars were shining around and above her, while far away in unfathomable space, shone the mysterious light which started on its earthward journey in the years that are gone for ever.
Lady Palliser was not calmly slumbering in front of the tea-table, in the mellow light of a duplex lamp, after her wont. She was standing at the open window, watching for Ida’s return.
‘Oh, my dear, I have been so frightened,’ she exclaimed, as Ida and Vernon appeared.
‘About what, dear mamma?’
‘About Brian. He has been going on so. Rogers came to tell me, and I went up to the corridor, and asked him to unlock his door and let me in, but he wouldn’t. Perhaps it was providential that he didn’t unlock the door, for he might have killed me.’
‘Oh, mamma, what nonsense!’ exclaimed Ida. She hurried Vernon off to bed before his mother could say another word, and then went back to the widow, who was walking about the drawing-room in much perturbation.
‘Now tell me everything,’ said Ida; ‘I did not want Vernon to be frightened.’
‘No, indeed, poor pet. But oh! Ida, if he should try to kill Vernon!’
‘Dear mother, he has no idea of killing anyone. What can have put such dreadful notions in your head?’
‘The way he went on, Ida. I stopped outside his door ever so long listening to him. He walked up and down like a mad-man, throwing things about, talking and muttering to himself all the time. I think he was packing his portmanteau.’
‘There is nothing so dreadful in that — nothing to alarm you.’
‘Oh! Ida, when a person is once out of their mind, there is no knowing what they may do.’
Ida did all in her power to soothe and reassure the frightened little woman, and, having done this, she went straight to her husband’s room.
She knocked two or three times without receiving any answer; then came a sullen refusal: ‘I don’t want to be worried by anyone. You can go to your own room, and leave me alone.’
But, upon her assuming a tone of authority, he opened the door, grumbling all the while.
The room was in frightful confusion — a couple of portmanteaux lay open on the floor; books, papers, clothes, were scattered in every direction. There was nothing packed. Brian was in shirt-sleeves and slippers, and had been smoking furiously, for the room was full of tobacco.
‘Why don’t you open your windows, Brian?’ said his wife; ‘the atmosphere is horrible.’
She went over to one of the windows, and flung open the sash. ‘That’s a comfortable thing to do,’ he said, coming over to her, ‘to open my window on a snowy night.’
‘Snowy, Brian! Why, it’s summer — a lovely night!’
‘Summer! nonsense. Don’t you see the snow? Why, it’s falling thickly. Look at the flakes — like feathers. Look, look!’ He pointed out of the window into the clear moonlit air, and tried to catch imaginary snowflakes with his long, nervous fingers.
‘Brian, you must know that it is summer-time,’ Ida said, firmly. ‘Look at the woods — those deep masses of shadow from the oaks and beeches — in all the beauty of their summer foliage.
‘Yes; it’s odd, isn’t it? — midsummer, and a snow-storm!’
‘What have you been doing with all those things?’
‘Packing. I must go to London early to-morrow. I have an appointment with the architect.’
‘The man who is to plan the alterations for this house. I shall make great alterations, you know, now that the place is yours. I am going to build an underground riding school, like that at Welbeck.’
‘The place mine? What are you dreaming of?’
‘Of course it is yours, now Vernon is dead. You were to inherit everything at his death. You cannot have forgotten that.’
‘Vernon dead! Why, Brian, he is snug and safe in his room a little way off. I have seen him within this half-hour.’
‘You are a fool,’ he said; ‘he died nearly three months ago. You are the sole owner of this place, and I am going to make it the finest mansion in the county.’
He rambled on, talking rapidly, wildly, of all the improvements and alterations he intended making, with an assumption of a business-like air amidst all this lunacy, which made his distracted state so much the more painful to contemplate. He talked of builders, specifications, estimates, and quantities — was full of self-importance — described picture galleries, music rooms, high-art decorations which would have cost a hundred thousand pounds, and all with absolute belief in his own power to realise these splendid visions. Yet every now and then in the very rush of his projects there came a sudden cloud of fear — his jaw fell — he looked apprehensively behind him — became darkly brooding — muttered something about that hideous charge hanging over him — a conspiracy hatched by men who should have been his friends — the probability of a great trial in Westminster Hall; and then he ran on again about builders and architects — Whistler, Burne Jones — and the marvellous mansion he was going to erect on the site of this present Wimperfield.
He rambled on with this horrible garrulity for a time that seemed almost an eternity to his agonised wife, and only ceased at last from positive exhaustion. But when Ida talked to him with gentle firmness, reminding him that Vernon was still the owner of Wimperfield, and that she was never likely to be its mistress, he changed his tone, and appeared to be in some measure recalled to his right senses.
‘What, have I been talking rot again?’ he muttered, with a sheepish look. ‘Yes, of course, the boy is still owner of the place. The alterations must stand over. Get me some brandy and soda, Ida, my mouth is parched.’
Ida rose as if to obey him, and rang the bell; but when the servant came she ordered soda-water only.
‘Brandy and soda,’ Brian said; ‘do you hear? Bring a bottle of brandy. I can’t get through the night without a little now and then.’
Ida gave the man a look which he understood. He left the room in silence.
‘Brian,’ she said, when he was gone, ‘you must not have any more brandy. It is brandy which has done you harm, which has filled your brain with these horrible delusions. Mr. Fosbroke told me so. You affect to despise him; but he is a sensible man who has had large experience.’
‘Large experience! in an agricultural village — physicking a handful of rustics!’ cried Brian, scornfully.
‘I know that he is clever, and I believe him,’ answered Ida; ‘my own common sense tells me that he is right. I see you the wreck and ruin of what you have been; and I know there is only one reason for this dreadful change.
‘It is your fault,’ he said sullenly. ‘I should be a different man if you had cared for me. I had nothing worth living for.’
Ida soothed him, and argued with him, with inexhaustible patience, full of pity for his fallen state. She was firm in her refusal to order brandy for him, in spite of his angry protest that he was being treated like a child, in spite of his assertion that the London physician had ordered him to take brandy. She stayed with him for hours, during which he alternated between rambling garrulity and sullen despondency; till at last, worn out with the endeavour to control or to soothe him, she withdrew to her own room, adjoining his, and left him, in the hope that, if left to himself, he would go to bed and sleep.
Rest of any kind for herself was impossible, weighed down with anxiety about her husband’s condition, and stricken with remorse at the thought that it was perhaps his ill-starred marriage which had in some wise tended to bring about this ruin of a life. And yet things had gone well with him, existence had been made very easy for him, since his marriage; and only moral perversity would have so blighted a career which had lain open to all the possibilities of good fortune. The initial difficulty — poverty, which so many men have to overcome, had been conquered for Brian within the first year of his marriage. And now six years were gone, and he had done nothing except waste and ruin his mind and body.
Ida left the door ajar between the two rooms, and lay down in her clothes, ready to go to her husband’s assistance if he should need help of any kind. She had taken the key out of the door opening from his room into the corridor, so that he would have to pass through her own room in going out. She had done this from a vague fear that he might go roaming about the house in the dead of the night, scaring her stepmother or the boy by some mad violence. She made up her mind to telegraph for the London physician early next morning, and to obtain some skilled attendant to watch and protect her husband. She had heard of a man in such a condition throwing himself out of a window, or cutting his throat: and she felt that every moment was a moment of fear, until proper means had been taken to protect Brian from his own madness.
She listened while he paced the adjoining room, muttering to himself; once she looked in, and saw him sitting on the floor, hunting for some imaginary objects which he saw scattered around him.
‘How did I come to drop such a lot of silver?’ he muttered; ‘what a devil of a nuisance not to be able to pick it up properly?’
She watched him groping about the carpet, pursuing imaginary objects, with eager sensitive fingers, and muttering to himself angrily when they evaded him.
By-and-by he flung himself upon his bed, but not to sleep, only to turn restlessly from side to side, over and over again, with a weary monotony which was even more wearisome to the watcher than to himself.
Two or three times he got up and hunted behind the bed curtains, evidently with the idea of some lurking foe, and then lay down again, apparently but half convinced that he was alone. Once he started up suddenly, just as he was dropping off to sleep, and complained of a flash of light which had almost blinded him.
‘Lightning,’ he muttered; ‘I believe I am struck blind. Come here, Ida.’
She went to him and soothed him, and told him there had been no lightning; it was only his fancy.
‘Everything is my fancy,’ he said, ‘the world is built out of fancies, the universe is only an extension of the individual mind;’ and then he began to ramble on upon every metaphysical theory he had ever read about, from Plato and Aristotle to Leibnitz and Kant, from Hegel to Bain — talking, talking, talking, through the slow hours of that terrible night.
At last, when the sun was high, he fell into what seemed a sound sleep; and then Ida, utterly worn with care and watching, changed her gown for a cashmere peignoir, and lay down on her bed.
She slept soundly for a blessed hour or more of respite and forgetfulness, then woke suddenly with an acute consciousness of trouble, yet vaguely remembering the nature of that trouble Memory came back only too soon. She rose hurriedly, and went to look at her patient.
His room was empty. He had passed through her room and gone out into the corridor, without awakening her. She rang her bell, and was answered by Lady Palliser’s own maid, Jane Dyson, who came in a leisurely way with the morning cups of tea. It was now seven o’clock.
‘Is Mr. Wendover downstairs — in the dining-room or library?’ Ida asked, trying not to look too anxious.
‘I have not seen him, ma’am.’
‘Inquire, please. I want to know where he is, and why he left his room so much earlier than usual.’
She had a dismal feeling that all the household must know what was amiss, that the shame and degradation of the case could hardly be deepened.
‘Yes, ma’am; I’ll go and see.’
‘Do, please, while I take my bath,’ said Ida. ‘You can come back to me in ten minutes.’
The cold bath refreshed her, and she was dressing hurriedly when Jane Dyson returned to announce that Mr. Wendover and Sir Vernon had gone out fishing at half-past six — the under-housemaid had seen them go, and had heard Mr. Wendover say that they would have a long day.
‘Go and ask her if she heard where they were going,’ said Ida, going on with her dressing, eager to be out of doors on her brother’s track.
That wild talk of Brian’s last night — that horrible delusion about the boy’s death — coupled with this early expedition, filled her with unspeakable fear. It was no new thing for Brian and the boy to go out fishing together. They had spent many a long day whipping distant trout streams in the summer that was gone, but this year Vernon had vainly endeavoured to tempt his old companion to join him in his wanderings with rod and line. Brian had refused all such invitations peevishly or sullenly; as if it were an offence to remind him how poor a creature he had become. And now, after a night of wakefulness and delirium, Brian, with his brain still wild and disordered, perhaps, had taken the boy out with him on some indefinite excursion — alone — the helpless child in the power of a maniac!
Ida did not wait for the return of the maid, but ran downstairs as soon as she was dressed, and questioned Rogers the butler. Rogers, as an old and valuable servant, took his ease of a morning, and only appeared upon the scene when underlings had made all things comfortable and ready to his hand. He therefore knew nothing of the mode and manner of Mr. Wendover and the boy’s departure.
Robert, Sir Vernon’s body-guard, groom, and general out-door retainer, was fetched from his breakfast; and he was able to inform Mrs. Wendover how Sir Vernon had gone out to the stables at twenty minutes past six, with his fishing basket slung over his shoulder, to ask for some artificial flies which Robert had been making for him, and to say that he should not want the pony or Robert all the morning, as he was going out with Mr. Wendover. He had not mentioned his destination, but Robert knew that the water meadows on the other side of Blackman’s Hanger were his favourite ground for such sport. He had been there with Robert many a day.
His remotest point in this direction was five or six miles from home. The boy was able to walk twelve miles in a day without undue fatigue, resting a good deal, and taking his own time; but in a general way he rode his pony when he went on any long excursion, and dismounted from time to time as the fancy took him.
‘I’m afraid he may overtire himself with Mr. Wendover, said Ida, anxious to give a good reason for her anxiety. ‘Get Cleopatra ready for me, and get a horse for yourself, and we’ll ride after them. Mr. Wendover is an invalid, and ought not to have the trouble of a child upon his hands all day. If I can overtake them, I shall persuade them both to come back.’
‘If they don’t, they’ll be likely to get caught,’ said Robert, exploring the clouds with the sagacious eyes of a rustic observer schooled by long experience to read signs and tokens in the heavens. ‘There’ll be a storm, I’m afeard, before dinner-time.’
Dinner-time with Robert meant the hour of the sun’s meridian, which he took to be the universal and legitimate dinner-hour for all mankind, designed so to be from the creation.
‘How soon can you have the horses ready?’
‘In a quarter of an hour, ma’am.’
Ida flew upstairs, meeting her step-mother on the way. Lady Palliser had gone to her son’s room as soon as she left her own — her custom always; and on missing the boy, had made instant inquiries as to his whereabouts, and had already taken fright.
‘Oh, Ida, if that dreadful husband of yours should lure him into some lonely place, and kill him! My boy, my beloved, my lovely boy!’
‘Dear mother, be reasonable. Brian would not hurt a hair of his head. Brian loves him,’ urged Ida soothingly, yet with a torturing pain at her heart, remembering Brian’s delirious raving last night.
‘What will not a madman do? Who can tell what he will do?’ cried Lady Palliser, wringing her hands.
‘Trust in God, mother; no harm will come to our boy. No harm shall come to him — except perhaps a wetting. Get warm clothes ready for him against I bring him home. I am going to ride after him,’ said Ida, hurrying off to her room.
In less than ten minutes she had put on her habit, and was in the stable yard; and three minutes afterwards Fanny Palliser, roaming up and down and round about her son’s room like a perturbed spirit, heard the clatter of hoofs, and saw her stepdaughter ride out of the yard attended by Robert, the best and kindest of grooms, and devoted to his young master.
Lady Palliser went downstairs, and again interrogated the housemaid who had witnessed Sir Vernou’s departure. ‘How had Mr. Wendover seemed?’ she asked —‘good-tempered, and pleasant, and quiet?’
Very good-tempered, and very pleasant, the girl told her, but not quiet; he talked and laughed a great deal, and seemed full of fun, but in a great hurry.
The mother remembered how many a time her boy and Brian Wendover had been out together, and tried to put away fear. After all, Brian was a nice fellow — he had always made himself agreeable to her. It was only of late that he had become fitful and strange in his ways. She had seen such a case before in her own family, her own flesh and blood, her mother’s only brother. That victim to his own vice had been elderly at the time she knew him — a chronic sufferer. She but too well remembered his tottering knees, and restless, tremulous feet: those painful morning hours when he shook like an aspen leaf: those dreadful nights, when he sat cowering over the fire, glancing askant over his shoulder every now and then, haunted by phantoms, hearing and replying to imaginary voices, striving with restless, shivering hands to rid himself of imaginary vermin. He had been mad enough at times in all conscience, as mad as any lunatic in Bedlam; but he had never tried to injure any one but himself. Once they found him with an open razor, possibly contemplating suicide; but he abandoned the idea meekly enough when surprised by his friends, and explained himself with one of those lies with which his tremulous tongue was every so ready.
Arguing with herself by the light of past experience, that after all this drink-madness was a disease apart, seldom culminating in actual violence, Lady Palliser sat down before her silver urn, and made believe to breakfast, in solitary state, thinking as she poured out her tea how very little all these grand things upon the table could help or comfort one in the hour of trouble. Nay, in such times of misfortune, the little sitting-room of her childhood, the round table and shabby old chairs, the kettle on the hob, and the cat upon the hearth, had seemed to possess an element of sympathy and comfort entirely wanting in this spacious formal dining-room, with its perpetual repetition of straight lines, and its chilling distances.
Ida rode through the park, and across the common, and round the base of Blackman’s Hanger, as fast as her clever mare could carry her with any degree of comfort to either. The clever mare was somewhat skittish from want of work, and inclined to show her cleverness by shying at every stray rabbit, or crocodile-shaped excrescence in the way of fallen timber, lying within her range of vision; but Ida was too anxious to be disconcerted by any such small surprises, and rode on without drawing rein to the banks of the trout-stream which wound its silvery way through the valley on the other side of Blackman’s Hanger. If they could have crossed the hill, the distance would have been lessened by at least two-thirds, but the steep was much to sheer for any horse to mount, and Ida had to circumnavigate the wooded promontory, which narrowed and dwindled to a furzy ridge at the edge of the river. Once in the valley her way was easy, with only here and there a low hedge for the mare to jump, just enough to put her in good spirits. But after riding for about seven miles along the bank of the stream, Ida pulled up in despair, to ask Robert where next she must look for his master. It was evident this was the wrong scent.
‘They’d hardly have come further nor this within the time,’ Robert admitted, with a rueful look at the lather on Cleopatra’s dark brown neck and shoulder; ‘and this is further nor ever I come with Sir Vernon. We must try somewheres else, ma’am.
And so they turned, and at Robert’s direction Ida rode off, this time at a walking pace, for another of Vernon’s happy hunting grounds.
A sudden ray of hope occurred to her as they returned by the base of Blackman’s Hanger. What if Vernon should have taken Brian to Cheap Jack’s cottage, to have introduced him to that gifted misanthrope, who, among his other accomplishments, had a talent for repairing fishing tackle?
Moved by this hope, Ida dismounted, and gave Cleopatra’s bridle to Robert, who was on his feet almost as soon as his mistress.
‘Let the mare rest for a little while, Robert,’ she said;’ I am going up to the top of the hill to see the pedlar — Sir Vernon may have been with him this morning.’
‘Not unlikely, ma’am — he be a rare favourite with Sir Vernon.’
‘I hope he’s a respectable person.’
‘Oh, I think the chap’s honest enough,’ answered the groom, with a patronising air; ‘but he’s a queer customer — a reg’lar Peter the wild boy, he is.’
Ida, who had never heard of this gentleman, was not particularly enlightened by the comparison. She went lightly and quickly up the steep ascent, and along a furzy ridge which rose imperceptibly skywards, until she came to the fir plantation which sheltered the gamekeeper’s cottage. The lattice stood wide open, and a man was leaning with folded arms on the sill as she came in sight, but in a flash the man had gone, and the lattice was closed.
She ran on, nothing deterred by this discourtesy, and knocked at the door with the handle of her whip.
‘Is my brother, Sir Vernon Palliser, here?’ she asked.
‘No,’ a gruff voice answered from within.
‘Please open the door, ‘I want to ask your advice. The boy has wandered off on a fishing expedition. Have you seen anything of him this morning?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Do you think I should tell you a lie?’ growled the sulky voice from within.
‘What a surly brute!’ thought Ida. ‘How can Vernon like to make a companion of such a man?’
She lingered, only half convinced, and nervously repeated her story — how Sir Vernon had gone out with Mr. Wendover that morning before seven, and how she had been looking for them, and was afraid they would be caught in the storm which was evidently coming.
‘You’d better go home before you’re half drowned yourself,’ growled the surly voice. ‘I’ll look for the boy and send him home to you, if he’s above ground.’
‘Will you I will you really look for him?’ faltered Ida, in a rapture of gratitude. ‘You know his ways, and he is so fond of you. Pray find him, and bring him home. You shall be liberally rewarded. We shall be deeply grateful,’ she added hastily, fearing she had offended by this suggestion of sordid recompense.
‘I’ll do my best,’ grumbled the woman-hater, ‘when you’ve cleared off. I shan’t stir till you’re gone.’
‘I am going this instant, my horse is at the bottom of the Hanger. God bless you for your goodness to my brother.’
‘God bless you,’ replied the voice in a deeper and less strident tone.
Big drops were falling slowly and far apart from the lowering sky as Ida went down the hill, a steep and even dangerous descent for feet less accustomed to that kind of ground.
‘You’d better ride home as fast as you can, ma’am,’ said Robert, as he mounted Cleopatra’s light burden. ‘The mare’s had a good blow, and you can canter her all the way back.’
‘I don’t care about the storm for myself. Sir Vernon must be out in it.’
A low muttering peal of thunder rolled slowly along the valley as she settled herself in her saddle.
‘Sir Vernon won’t hurt, ma’am. Besides, who knows if he ain’t at home by this time?’
There was comfort in this suggestion; but after a smart ride home, under a drenching shower diversified by thunder and lightning, Ida found Lady Palliser waiting for her in the portico. There had been no tidings of the boy. Two of the gardeners had been despatched in quest of him — each provided with a mackintosh and an umbrella; and now the mother, no longer apprehensive of homicidal mania on the part of Brian, was tortured by her fear of the fury of the elements, the pitiless rain which might give her boy rheumatic fever, lightnings which might strike him with blindness or death, rivers which might heave themselves above their banks to drown him, trees which might wrench themselves up from their roots on purpose to tumble on him. Lady Palliser always took the catastrophic view of nature when she thought of her boy.
Luncheon was out of the question for either Ida or her stepmother. They went into the dinning-room when the gong sounded, and each was affectionately anxious that the other should take some refreshment; but they could do nothing except watch the storm, the fine old trees bending to the tempest, the darkly lurid sky brooding over the earth, thick sheets of rain, driven across the foregound, and almost shutting out the distant woods and hills. The two women stood silently watching that unfriendly sky, and listened for every footstep in the hall, in the fond hope of the boy’s return. And then they tried to comfort, each other with the idea that he was under cover somewhere, at some village inn, eating a homely meal of bread and cheese happy and cheery as a bird, perhaps, while they were so miserable about him.
‘I have an idea that Cheap Jack will find them,’ said Ida by-and-by. ‘Vernon says he is such a clever fellow; and a rover like that would know every inch of the country.’
The day wore on; the storm rolled away towards other hills; and woods; and a rent in the dun-coloured clouds showed the bright blue above them. Soon all the heaven was clear, and the wet grass was shining in the afternoon sunlight.
One of the messengers now returned with the useless mackintosh. He had been able to hear nothing of Sir Vernon and his companion. He had been at Wimperfield village, and through two other villages, and had taken a circuitous way back by another meadow-stream, where there might be a hope of trout; but he had seen no trace of the missing boy. The field labourers he had met had been able to give him no information.
There was nothing to be done but to wait, and wait, and wait. Robert had mounted a fresh horse and had gone off to scour the country, wondering not a little that there should be such a fuss about a day’s fishing.
Five o’clock came, and afternoon tea, usually the pleasantest hour of the day; for in this summer-time the five o’clock tea-table was prepared in the rose garden in front of the drawing-room, under a Japanese umbrella, and in the shade of a screen of magnolia and Portugal laurel, mock orange and guelder rose, that had been growing for half a century. To-day Lady Palliscr and her step-daughter took their tea in silent dejection. They had grown weary of comforting each other — weary of all hopeful speculations.
It was on the stroke of six — the boy and his companion had been away nearly twelve hours. They could do nothing but wait.
Suddenly they heard voices — two or three voices talking excitedly and all together — and then a shrill sweet cry in a voice they both knew so well.
‘He is alive!’ cried Fanny Palliser, starting up and rushing towards the house.
She had scarcely gone half-a-dozen steps when Rogers came out, crimson, puffing with excitement, leading Vernon by the arm.
‘Here he is, my lady, safe and sound!’ said Rogers; ‘but he has had a rare drenching — the sooner we put him to bed the better.’
‘Yes, yes, he must go to bed this instant. Oh, thank God, my darling, my darling! Oh, you naughty boy, how could you give me such a fright! You have almost broken your poor mother’s heart, and Ida’s too.’
‘Dear mother, dear Ida, I am so sorry. But I didn’t go alone. I went with Brian. That wasn’t naughty, was it?’ the boy asked, innocently.
‘Naughty to stay away so long — to go so far. Where have you been?’
‘Bird’s-nesting in the woods, and I have got a honey-buzzard’s nest — two lovely eggs, worth ten shillings apiece — the nest is built on the top of a crow’s nest, don’t you know. First we went fishing, but there were no fish; and then I asked Brian to let me do some bird’s-nesting, and we went into the woods — oh, a long, long way, and I got very tired — and we had no lunch. Brian had something in a bottle; he bought it at an inn on the road; I think it was brandy. He swore because it was so bad, but he didn’t give me any; and when the storm came on we were on Headborough Hanger, and Brian and I lost each other, and I suppose he came straight home.’
‘No, Brian has not come home.’
‘Oh, dear,’ said the boy; ‘I hope he’s not looking for me all this time.’
‘Come, darling, you must go to bed; we must get off these wet clothes,’ said Ida, and Vernon’s mother and sister carried him off to his room, where a fire was lighted, and blankets heated, and hot-water bottles brought for the comfort of the young wanderer.
The boy prattled on unweariedly all the time he was being undressed, telling his day’s adventures — how Brian had been frightened because he thought there were some men following them, who wanted to take Brian to prison. He did not see the men, but Brian saw them hiding behind trees, and watching and following them secretly.
‘I was very tired,’ said the boy, with a piteous look, ‘and my feet ached, for Brian would go so fast. And I wanted to come home badly; but Brian said the men were after us, and we must double upon them; and we went round and round and round till we lost ourselves; and then Brian told me to rest on the trunk of a tree while he went a little way further to see if the men were really gone; and I sat and waited till I got very cold, but he did not come back; and then I went to look for him, and couldn’t find him; and then I began to cry. I was not frightened, mother, but I was so tired.’
‘My poor darling! how could Brian be so cruel?’ sobbed the mother, hugging her boy, while Ida was preparing warm negus and chicken sandwiches for his refreshment.
‘He wasn’t cruel,’ explained Vernon; ‘he was frightened about those men, ever so much more afraid than I was. But I never saw any men, Ida. How was it Brian could see them, when I couldn’t?’
‘How did you find your way home at last, dearest?’ asked Ida.
‘I didn’t find it. I should be in the wood still if it was not for Jack — Jack found me, and carried me across the Hanger on his back, and took me up to his cottage, and took off my clothes and dried them, and gave me some brandy in a teaspoon, and then wrapped me in a bear-skin, and carried me all the way here.’
‘How good of him!’ said Ida; ‘and how I should like to thank him for his kindness!’
‘He doesn’t want to be thanked. He hates girls,’ said Vernon, with perfect frankness. ‘He just gave me into Rogers’ arms and walked off. But I shall go and thank him to-morrow morning, and I shall take him my onyx breast-pin — the one you gave me last Christmas, mother. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘No, dear; you may give him anything you like. But I think he would rather have a sovereign — or a nice warm overcoat for the winter. What would be the good of an onyx pin to him?’
‘What would be the good of it! Why, he would keep it for my sake, of course!’ answered Vernie, with a grand air.
Vernon had no appetite for the chicken sandwiches, or inclination for Madeira negus. He took a few sips of the latter to please his womankind, but he could eat nothing. He had fasted all day, and now, in his over excited state, he had no power to eat. Lady Palliser took fright at this, and sent off for the family doctor, that fatherly counsellor in whose wisdom she had such confidence. The boy was evidently feverish, his eyes were too bright, his cheeks flushed. He was restless, and unable to sleep off his fatigue in that placid slumber of childhood which brings healing with its rythmical ebb and flow.
The dinner-gong sounded, and Brian was still missing, but at half-past eight he came in, and walked straight to the drawing-room, where Ida was sitting alone. Neither she nor her stepmother had sat down to dinner. Lady Palliser was in her boy’s room, waiting for the doctor.
‘Oh, Brian, thank God you are safe!’ said his wife, as he came slowly into the room, and sank into a chair. ‘What a scare you have given us all!’
‘Did you think I was drowned, or that I had cut my throat?’ he asked, sneeringly. ‘I don’t think either event would have mattered much to anyone in this house.’
His manner was entirely different from what it had been last night. His words were cool and deliberate, his expression moody, but in nowise irrational.
‘You have no right to say that; but people who say such things seldom mean what they say,’ replied Ida, quietly. ‘Had you not better go to your room at once and change your clothes, or take a warm bath. It is a kind of suicide to wander about all day in wet clothes as you have done.’
‘Who told you I was wandering about all day?’
‘Vernon told us.’
‘Vernon!’ He started, as if suddenly remembering the boy’s existence; and then in an agitated manner asked, ‘Did he come home? Is he all right?’
‘He came home, thank God; at least, he was brought home. I doubt if he could have found his way back alone. I am afraid he is going to be ill.’
‘Nonsense! a little cold, perhaps; nothing more. It was a diabolical day. I never saw such rain — a regular tropical down-pour. But what is a shower of rain for a healthy boy?’
‘Not much, perhaps, if he is able to change his clothes directly afterwards. But to be wandering about for hours in wet clothes, without food — that is enough to kill a stronger boy than my brother.’
‘It won’t kill him, you may depend,’ said Brian, with a cynical laugh; ‘I should profit too much by his death: and I’m not one of fortune’s favourites. He’s tough enough.’
‘Brian, you have no more heart than a stone.’
‘Perhaps not. All the heart I had I gave to you, and you made a football of it; but “Why should a heart have been there, in the way of a fair woman’s foot?” as the poet asks.’
‘Had you not better go to your room and take off your wet clothes?’ repeated Ida.
She had no inclination to argue or remonstrate with a man whose mind was so evidently askew, who had long ago passed the boundary line of principle and noble thought, and had become a mere creature of impulse, blown this way or that way by every gust of passion — so weak a sinner that her scornful anger was tempered by pity.
‘If you are anxious I should escape a severe cold, perhaps you will be liberal enough to allow me a little brandy,’ said Brian.
Ida was doubtful how to reply. She had been told to withhold all stimulants, and yet this was an exceptional case. Happily at this very moment the door was opened, and Mr. Fosbroke, the family doctor, was announced.
She ran to meet him. ‘Vernon has had a severe wetting, and we are afraid he is going to be ill,’ she said. ‘I’ll take you upstairs at once. Mamma is with him.’
As soon as they were outside in the hall she told him about Brian’s request, and asked his advice.
‘I think I would give him a small tumbler of grog after his wetting. To refuse would seem too severe. But take care he hasn’t the control of the bottle.’
She ran back to her husband, told him she would take some randy and water to his room for him by the time he had hanged his clothes, and then she went with Mr. Fosbroke to in Vernon’s room, that bright airy room overlooking the rose garden, which maternal and sisterly love had decorated with all possible prettinesses, and furnished with every appliance of comfort.
Mr. Fosbroke examined the boy carefully, and seemed hardly to like the aspect of the case, though he maintained the customary professional cheeriness.
The boy was feverish, very feverish, he admitted; — pulse a good deal too rapid; temperature high. One could never tell how these cases were going to turn. The boy had suffered unusual fatigue and deprivation, and for a child so reared the strain was severe; but in all probability a gentle febrifuge, which would throw him into a perspiration, and a good night’s rest, would be all that was needed, and he would be as well as ever to-morrow morning.
‘These small things get out of order so easily,’ said Mr. Fosbroke, smiling down at the flushed cheek on the pillow. ‘They are like those foolish little Geneva watches ladies are so fond of wearing. My old turnip never goes wrong. You must make haste and grow big, Vernon, and then mamma will not be so easily frightened about you.’
Vernon smiled faintly, without opening his eyes.
‘You see, you have contrived between you to make him an exotic,’ said the doctor; ‘and you mustn’t be surprised if he gives you a little trouble now and then. Orchids are beautiful flowers, but they are difficult to rear.’
‘Oh, Mr. Fosbroke,’ said Lady Palliser, ‘how can you say so! Vernie is so hardy — riding his pony in all weathers.’
‘Yes, but always provided with a mackintosh — always told to hurry home at the first drop of rain. Well, I dare say he will be ready for his pony to-morrow, if he takes my draught.’
To-morrow came, but Vernon was not in a condition to ride his pony. The fever and prostration were worse than they had been over night, and while Brian seemed to have taken no harm from his exposure to the storm, the boy had evidently suffered a shock to the system, from which he would be slow to recover.
Tortured with anxiety about this idolised brother, Ida did not forget her duty to her husband. She did what she had resolved to do during the long watches of that agonising night, in which she had seen Brian the victim of his own weak self-indulgence, to all intents and purposes a madman, yet unworthy of the compassion which lunacy inspires, since this madness was self-induced — she telegraphed to the London physician whose advice her husband affected to value; and at five o’clock in the afternoon she had the satisfaction of seeing a soberly-clad gray-haired gentleman alight from a Petersfield fly in front of the portico. This was Dr. Mallison, of Harley Street, a great authority in all nervous disorders — as thorough and as real a man as Dr. Rylance was artificial and shallow, yet a, man whom some of Dr. Rylance’s most profitable patients denounced as a brute.
Dr. Mallison’s plain and straightforward manner invited confidence, and Ida confided her fears and anxieties to him without scruple, telling him faithfully all that she had observed in her husband’s conduct before and after that one dreadful night, which she described shudderingly.
‘Yes, I remember his case. This seems to have been rather a sharp attack. He had one early in the spring, just before he came to me.’
‘An attack — like this one — an attack of —’
‘Delirium tremens. Not quite so bad as this last, from his own account; but then one can never quite trust a patient’s account. And you say he is better now?’
‘Yes; he has been in his room all to-day, writing or reading. He seems dull and low-spirited, that is all.’
‘No delusions to-day?’
‘Not that I have discovered; but I have only seen him now and then. My little brother is ill, and I have been in his room most of my time.’
‘Poor soul! that is a bad job,’ said Dr. Mallison, kindly. ‘Well, you must have an attendant for your husband. Can you get anybody here, do you think? Or shall I send you a man from town?’
‘I shall be very grateful if you will send some one. It would be difficult to get any one here.’
‘I dare say it would. I’ll get a person despatched to you by the mail train, if I am back in time. Your husband must not be left to himself. That is a vital point. Still so long as he is reasonable, and shows no sign of violence, it will not do to let him suppose that he is watched. That would aggravate matters. You must be diplomatic. Let the man pass as an extra servant, not a professional nurse. All invalids detest professional nurses.’
‘Is this dreadful malady likely to pass away?’ asked Ida, falteringly.
It was unspeakably painful to her to discuss her husband’s failing; and yet she wanted to learn all that could be known about it.
‘Undoubtedly. Remove the cause, and the effect will cease. But you have to do more than that. You have to restore the constitution to its normal state — to renew the tissues which intemperance has destroyed — in a word, to eliminate the poison and then the craving for drink will cease, and your husband may begin life again, like Naaman after his seventh dip in Jordan. At Mr. Wendover’s age, such a habit ought not to be fatal. There is ample time for reform; but I give you fair warning that it is not an easy disease to cure. I’m not talking of delirium tremens, which is a symptom rather than a disease, but of alcoholic poisoning. The craving for alcohol once established is an ugly weed to root out.’
‘If patience and care can cure him, he shall be cured,’ said Ida, with a steadfast look, which gave new nobility to her beautiful face in the observant eyes of the physician — a man keen to appreciate every gradation of the physical and the mental, and to tell to the nicest shade where sense left off and soul began. Here was a woman assuredly in whom soul predominated over sense.
‘I believe that, madam,’ he said, kindly; ‘and you shall have my best assistance, depend upon it.’
‘Why should a young man bring upon himself such an affliction as this?’ Ida asked, wonderingly. ‘Ours is counted a sober era.’
‘Why, indeed? After-dinner boozing and three-bottle men are a tradition of the dark ages; and yet there are dozens of young men in London — gifted young men some of them — who are doing this thing every year. Half the untimely deaths you hear of might be traced home to the brandy bottle, if a man had only the curiosity to look into first causes. One man dies of congestion of the lungs. Yes, but he had burnt up his lungs first with perpetual alcohol. Another is a victim to liver. Why, madam, a temperate man may work thirty years under an Indian sun, and hardly know that he has a liver. Another is said to have died of too much brain work. Yes, work done by a brain steeped in alcohol — not a brain, but a preparation in spirits. They all do the same thing — pegging — pegging — pegging — from breakfast to bed-time; and most of them would deny that they are drunkards.’
‘Do you think that if my husband drank it was because he was not happy — because he had something on his mind?’
‘Much more likely that it was because he had nothing on his mind, my dear madam. These briefless barristers in the Temple — men with private means, not obliged to hunt for work, with a little fancy for literature, and a little taste for the drama — these idle youths, whose only idea of social intercourse is to be gossiping and drinking in one another’s rooms all day long, living an undomestic life in chambers, without the public interests or athletic sports of a university — these are the chosen victims of alcohol. Of course, I don’t pretend for a moment that they all drink; but where the tendency to drink exists this is the kind of life to foster it.’
‘My husband was not obliged to live in chambers — he had a home here.’
‘Yea; but young men, unless they are sportsmen, hate the country; and then, once in the London vortex, a man can’t easily escape. And now, I suppose, I had better go and see the patient Does he know I have been sent for?’
‘Then perhaps we shall have a scene. He may be angry.’
‘I must risk that,’ said Ida, firmly. ‘He refused to be treated by our family doctor, and I felt that things could not go on any longer as they were going on.’
She led the way to Brian’s room. He was lounging by the open window, smoking; his books and papers were scattered about the tables in reckless disorder.
‘Dr. Mallison has come to see you, Brian,’ said Ida, quietly, as the physician followed her into the room.
‘You sent for him, then!’ exclaimed Brian, starting up angrily.
‘There was no alternative; you refused to be attended by Mr. Fosbroke.’
‘Fosbroke — a village apothecary, the parish doctor, who would have poisoned me. Yes, I should think so. How dare you send for anyone? How dare you treat me like a child?’
‘I dare do anything which I believe to be for your good,’ Ida answered, unflinchingly.
He quailed before her, and changed his tone in a moment. ‘Well, if it gratifies you to spend your money upon physicians — How do you do, Dr. Mallison? Of course, I am very glad to see you, as a friend; but I want no doctoring.’
‘I’m afraid you do,’ said the physician. ‘You have not done what I told you when I saw you in London.’
‘What was that?’
‘To give up all stimulants.’
‘Oh, that was impossible! It’s just like asking a man to shut his mouth, and breathe only through his nostrils, when he has lived all his life with his mouth open. No man can change his habits all at once, at the fiat of a physician. But I have been very moderate ever since I saw you.’
‘And yet you have had another attack?’
‘Who told you that?’ asked Brian, with an angry glance at his wife.
‘Your own appearance tells me — yes, and your pulse. You have been indulging in the old habits — nipping all day long; and you have been sleeping badly.’
‘Sleeping badly!’ muttered Brian moodily; ‘I wish to Heaven I could sleep anyhow. I have forgotten the sensation of being asleep — I don’t know what it means. Just as I fancy myself dropping off there comes a flash of light in my eyes, and I am broad awake again. The other night I thought it lightened perpetually, but my wife said there was no lightning.’
‘A case of shattered nerves, and all your own doing,’ said Dr. Mallison. ‘You must leave off brandy.’
‘Brandy has left me off,’ retorted Brian. ‘My wife and her step-mother have gone in for strict economy. I am not allowed a spoonful of cognac, although I tell them it is the only thing that staves off racking neuralgic pains.
‘You must endure neuralgia rather than go on poisoning yourself with brandy. For you alcohol is rank poison — you are suffering now from the cumulative effect of all you have taken within the last twelve months. There are men who can drink with impunity — go on drinking hard through a long life; but you are not one of those. Drink for you means death.’
‘A man can die but once,’ grumbled Brian; ‘and an early death is better than an aimless life.’
‘For shame!’ said the physician. ‘If I had such a wife as you have, the aim of my life would be to make myself worthy of her, and to win distinction for her sake.’
‘Ah, there was a time when I thought the same,’ answered Brian; ‘but that’s over and done with.’
Ida left the doctor and his patient together, and walked up and down the corridor outside her husband’s room, waiting to hear Dr. Mallison’s final directions. He remained closeted with Brian for about a quarter of an hour.
‘I have said all I could, and I have written a prescription which may do some good,’ he told Ida. ‘This is a case for moral suasion rather than medical treatment. If you can exercise a good influence over your husband, and keep all stimulants away from him, he will recover. But his constitution has been undermined by bad habits — an indolent unhealthy life — a life spent in hot rooms, by artificial light. Get him out of doors as much as you can, without exposing him to bad weather or undue fatigue. He is very weak, and altogether out of gear; and you mustn’t expect much improvement until he recovers tone and appetite; but if you can ward off any return of the delirium, that will be something gained.’
‘Indeed it will. The delirium was too terrible.’
‘Well, keep all drink away from him.’
‘Even if he seems to suffer for want of it?’
‘Yes. The old-fashioned idea was that stopping a man’s drink suddenly would bring on an attack of delirium tremens; but we know better than that now. We know that the delirium is only a consequence of alcoholic poisoning, and inevitable where that goes on.’
Ida went back to the drawing-room with the doctor. The tea-table was ready, and there were decanters and sandwiches on another table. Dr. Mallison took a cup of tea and a sandwich, while he gave Ida minute directions as to the treatment of the patient. And then he accepted the handsome cheque which had been written for him, with Mr. Fosbroke’s advice as to amount, and took his departure, promising to send a skilled attendant within the next twelve hours.
Ida felt happier after she had seen Dr. Mallison. There was very little that could be done for her husband. He had sown his wild oats, and that light scattering of the seeds of folly had been pleasant enough, no doubt, in the time of sowing; and this was the unanticipated result — a bitter harvest of care and pain which had to be endured somehow.
And now came for that household at Wimperfield a period of agonising trouble and fear. The boy’s illness developed into an acute attack of rheumatic fever, and for three dreadful days and nights his life trembled in the balance. Not once did Ida enter her husband’s room during that awful period of fear. She could not steel herself to look upon the man whose sin, or whose folly, had brought this evil on her beloved one. ‘My murdered boy,’ she kept repeating to herself. Even on her knees, when she tried to pray, humbly and meekly appealing to the Fountain of mercy and grace — even then, while she knelt with bowed head and folded hands, those awful words flashed into her mind. Her murdered boy.
If he were to die, who could doubt that his death would lie at Brian’s door? who could put away the dark suspicion that Brian had wantonly, and with murderous intent, exposed the delicate child to bad weather and long hours of fasting and fatigue?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50