The rain dripped ceaselessly upon the dreary earth under a grey November sky — a dull and lowering sky, that seemed to brood over this lower world with some menace of coming down to blot out and destroy it. The express-train, rushing headlong across the wet flats of Lincolnshire, glared like a meteor in the gray fog; the dismal shriek of the engine was like the cry of a bird of prey. The few passengers who had chosen that dreary winter’s day for their travels looked despondently out at the monotonous prospect, seeking in vain to descry some spot of hope in the joyless prospect; or made futile attempts to read their newspapers by the dim light of the lamp in the roof of the carriage. Sulky passengers shuddered savagely as they wrapped themselves in huge woollen rugs or ponderous coverings made from the skins of wild beasts. Melancholy passengers drew grotesque and hideous travelling-caps over their brows, and, coiling themselves in the corner of their seats, essayed to sleep away the weary hours. Everything upon this earth seemed dismal and damp, cold and desolate, incongruous and uncomfortable.
But there was one first-class passenger in that Lincolnshire express who made himself especially obnoxious to his fellows by the display of an amount of restlessness and superabundant energy quite out of keeping with the lazy despondency of those about him.
This was a young man with a long tawny beard and a white face — a very handsome face, though wan and attenuated, as if with some terrible sickness, and somewhat disfigured by certain strappings of plaister, which were bound about a patch of his skull a little above the left temple. This young man had one side of the carriage to himself; and a sort of bed had been made up for him with extra cushions, upon which he lay at full length, when he was still, which was never for very long together. He was enveloped almost to the chin in voluminous railway-rugs, but, in spite of these coverings, shuddered every now and then, as if with cold. He had a pocket-pistol amongst his travelling paraphernalia, which he applied occasionally to his dry lips. Sometimes drops of perspiration broke suddenly out upon his forehead, and were brushed away by a tremulous hand, that was scarcely strong enough to hold a cambric handkerchief. In short, it was sufficiently obvious to every one that this young man with the tawny beard had only lately risen from a sick-bed, and had risen therefrom considerably before the time at which any prudent medical practitioner would have given him licence to do so.
It was evident that he was very, very ill, but that he was, if anything, more ill at ease in mind than in body; and that some terrible gnawing anxiety, some restless care, some horrible uncertainty or perpetual foreboding of trouble, would not allow him to be at peace. It was as much as the three fellow-passengers who sat opposite to him could do to bear with his impatience, his restlessness, his short half-stifled moans, his long weary sighs; the horror of his fidgety feet shuffled incessantly upon the cushions; the suddenly convulsive jerks with which he would lift himself upon his elbow to stare fiercely into the dismal fog outside the carriage window; the groans that were wrung from him as he flung himself into new and painful positions; the frightful aspect of physical agony which came over his face as he looked at his watch — and he drew out and consulted that ill-used chronometer, upon an average, once in a quarter of an hour; his impatient crumpling of the crisp leaves of a new “Bradshaw,” which he turned over ever and anon, as if, by perpetual reference to that mysterious time-table, he might hasten the advent of the hour at which he was to reach his destination. He was, altogether, a most aggravating and exasperating travelling companion; and it was only out of Christian forbearance with the weakness of his physical state that his irritated fellow-passengers refrained from uniting themselves against him, and casting him bodily out of the window of the carriage; as a clown sometimes flings a venerable but tiresome pantaloon through a square trap or pitfall, lurking, undreamed of, in the façade of an honest tradesman’s dwelling.
The three passengers had, in divers manners, expressed their sympathy with the invalid traveller; but their courtesies had not been responded to with any evidence of gratitude or heartiness. The young man had answered his companions in an absent fashion, scarcely deigning to look at them as he spoke; — speaking altogether with the air of some sleep-walker, who roams hither and thither absorbed in a dreadful dream, making a world for himself, and peopling it with horrible images unknown to those about him.
Had he been ill? — Yes, very ill. He had had a railway accident, and then brain-fever. He had been ill for a long time.
Somebody asked him how long.
He shuffled about upon the cushions, and groaned aloud at this question, to the alarm of the man who had asked it.
“How long?” he cried, in a fierce agony of mental or bodily uneasiness; —“how long? Two months — three months — ever since the 15th of August.”
Then another passenger, looking at the young man’s very evident sufferings from a commercial point of view, asked him whether he had had any compensation.
“Compensation!” cried the invalid. “What compensation?”
“Compensation from the Railway Company. I hope you’ve a strong case against them, for you’ve evidently been a terrible sufferer.”
It was dreadful to see the way in which the sick man writhed under this question.
“Compensation!” he cried. “What compensation can they give me for an accident that shut me in a living grave for three months, that separated me from ——? You don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” he added suddenly; “I can’t think of this business patiently; I can’t be reasonable. If they’d hacked me to pieces, I shouldn’t have cared. I’ve been under a red-hot Indian sun, when we fellows couldn’t see the sky above us for the smoke of the cannons and the flashing of the sabres about our heads, and I’m not afraid of a little cutting and smashing more or less; but when I think what others may have suffered through —— I’m almost mad, and ——!”
He couldn’t say any more, for the intensity of his passion had shaken him as a leaf is shaken by a whirlwind; and he fell back upon the cushions, trembling in every limb, and groaning aloud. His fellow-passengers looked at each other rather nervously, and two out of the three entertained serious thoughts of changing carriages when the express stopped midway between London and Lincoln.
But they were reassured by-and-by; for the invalid, who was Captain Edward Arundel, or that pale shadow of the dashing young cavalry officer which had risen from a sick-bed, relapsed into silence, and displayed no more alarming symptoms than that perpetual restlessness and disquietude which is cruelly wearying even to the strongest nerves. He only spoke once more, and that was when the short day, in which there had been no actual daylight, was closing in, and the journey nearly finished, when he startled his companions by crying out suddenly —
“O my God! will this journey never come to an end? Shall I never be put out of this horrible suspense?”
The journey, or at any rate Captain Arundel’s share of it, came to an end almost immediately afterwards, for the train stopped at Swampington; and while the invalid was staggering feebly to his feet, eager to scramble out of the carriage, his servant came to the door to assist and support him.
“You seem to have borne the journey wonderful, sir,” the man said respectfully, as he tried to rearrange his master’s wrappings, and to do as much as circumstances, and the young man’s restless impatience, would allow of being done for his comfort.
“I have suffered the tortures of the infernal regions, Morrison,” Captain Arundel ejaculated, in answer to his attendant’s congratulatory address. “Get me a fly directly; I must go to the Towers at once.”
“Not to-night, sir, surely?” the servant remonstrated, in a tone of alarm. “Your Mar and the doctors said you must rest at Swampington for a night.”
“I’ll rest nowhere till I’ve been to Marchmont Towers,” answered the young soldier passionately. “If I must walk there — if I’m to drop down dead on the road — I’ll go. If the cornfields between this and the Towers were a blazing prairie or a raging sea, I’d go. Get me a fly, man; and don’t talk to me of my mother or the doctors. I’m going to look for my wife. Get me a fly.”
This demand for a commonplace hackney vehicle sounded rather like an anti-climax, after the young man’s talk of blazing prairies and raging seas; but passionate reality has no ridiculous side, and Edward Arundel’s most foolish words were sublime by reason of their earnestness.
“Get me a fly, Morrison,” he said, grinding his heel upon the platform in the intensity of his impatience. “Or, stay; we should gain more in the end if you were to go to the George — it’s not ten minutes’ walk from here; one of the porters will take you — the people there know me, and they’ll let you have some vehicle, with a pair of horses and a clever driver. Tell them it’s for an errand of life and death, and that Captain Arundel will pay them three times their usual price, or six times, if they wish. Tell them anything, so long as you get what we want.”
The valet, an old servant of Edward Arundel’s father, was carried away by the young man’s mad impetuosity. The vitality of this broken-down invalid, whose physical weakness contrasted strangely with his mental energy, bore down upon the grave man-servant like an avalanche, and carried him whither it would. He was fain to abandon all hope of being true to the promises which he had given to Mrs. Arundel and the medical men, and to yield himself to the will of the fiery young soldier.
He left Edward Arundel sitting upon a chair in the solitary waiting-room, and hurried after the porter who had volunteered to show him the way to the George Inn, the most prosperous hotel in Swampington.
The valet had good reason to be astonished by his young master’s energy and determination; for Mary Marchmont’s husband was as one rescued from the very jaws of death. For eleven weeks after that terrible concussion upon the South–Western Railway, Edward Arundel had lain in a state of coma — helpless, mindless; all the story of his life blotted away, and his brain transformed into as blank a page as if he had been an infant lying on his mother’s knees. A fractured skull had been the young Captain’s chief share in those injuries which were dealt out pretty freely to the travellers in the Exeter mail on the 15th of August; and the young man had been conveyed to Dangerfield Park, whilst his father’s corpse lay in stately solemnity in one of the chief rooms, almost as much a corpse as that dead father.
Mrs. Arundel’s troubles had come, as the troubles of rich and prosperous people often do come, in a sudden avalanche, that threatened to overwhelm the tender-hearted matron. She had been summoned from Germany to attend her husband’s deathbed; and she was called away from her faithful watch beside that deathbed, to hear tidings of the accident that had befallen her younger son.
Neither the Dorsetshire doctor who attended the stricken traveller upon his homeward journey, and brought the strong man, helpless as a child, to claim the same tender devotion that had watched over his infancy, nor the Devonshire doctors who were summoned to Dangerfield, gave any hope of their patient’s recovery. The sufferer might linger for years, they said; but his existence would be only a living death, a horrible blank, which it was a cruelty to wish prolonged. But when a great London surgeon appeared upon the scene, a new light, a wonderful gleam of hope, shone in upon the blackness of the mother’s despair.
This great London surgeon, who was a very unassuming and matter-of-fact little man, and who seemed in a great hurry to earn his fee and run back to Saville Row by the next express, made a brief examination of the patient, asked a very few sharp and trenchant questions of the reverential provincial medical practitioners, and then declared that the chief cause of Edward Arundel’s state lay in the fact that a portion of the skull was depressed — a splinter pressed upon the brain.
The provincial practitioners opened their eyes very wide; and one of them ventured to mutter something to the effect that he had thought as much for a long time. The London surgeon further stated, that until the pressure was removed from the patient’s brain, Captain Edward Arundel would remain in precisely the same state as that into which he had fallen immediately upon the accident. The splinter could only be removed by a very critical operation, and this operation must be deferred until the patient’s bodily strength was in some measure restored.
The surgeon gave brief but decisive directions to the provincial medical men as to the treatment of their patient during this interregnum, and then departed, after promising to return as soon as Captain Arundel was in a fit state for the operation. This period did not arrive till the first week in November, when the Devonshire doctors ventured to declare their patient’s shattered frame in a great measure renovated by their devoted attention, and the tender care of the best of mothers.
The great surgeon came. The critical operation was performed, with such eminent success as to merit a very long description, which afterwards appeared in the Lancet; and slowly, like the gradual lifting of a curtain, the black shadows passed away from Edward Arundel’s mind, and the memory of the past returned to him.
It was then that he raved madly about his young wife, perpetually demanding that she might be summoned to him; continually declaring that some great misfortune would befall her if she were not brought to his side, that, even in his feebleness, he might defend and protect her. His mother mistook his vehemence for the raving of delirium. The doctors fell into the same error, and treated him for brain-fever. It was only when the young soldier demonstrated to them that he could, by making an effort over himself, be as reasonable as they were, that he convinced them of their mistake. Then he begged to be left alone with his mother; and, with his feverish hands clasped in hers, asked her the meaning of her black dress, and the reason why his young wife had not come to him. He learned that his mother’s mourning garments were worn in memory of his dead father. He learned also, after much bewilderment and passionate questioning, that no tidings of Mary Marchmont had ever come to Dangerfield.
It was then that the young man told his mother the story of his marriage: how that marriage had been contracted in haste, but with no real desire for secrecy; how he had, out of mere idleness, put off writing to his friends until that last fatal night; and how, at the very moment when the pen was in his hand and the paper spread out before him, the different claims of a double duty had torn him asunder, and he had been summoned from the companionship of his bride to the deathbed of his father.
Mrs. Arundel tried in vain to set her son’s mind at rest upon the subject of his wife’s silence.
“No, mother!” he cried; “it is useless talking to me. You don’t know my poor darling. She has the courage of a heroine, as well as the simplicity of a child. There has been some foul play at the bottom of this; it is treachery that has kept my wife from me. She would have come here on foot, had she been free to come. I know whose hand is in this business. Olivia Marchmont has kept my poor girl a prisoner; Olivia Marchmont has set herself between me and my darling!”
“But you don’t know this, Edward. I’ll write to Mr. Paulette; he will be able to tell us what has happened.”
The young man writhed in a sudden paroxysm of mental agony.
“Write to Mr. Paulette!” he exclaimed. “No, mother; there shall be no delay, no waiting for return-posts. That sort of torture would kill me in a few hours. No, mother; I will go to my wife by the first train that will take me on my way to Lincolnshire.”
“You will go! You, Edward! in your state!”
There was a terrible outburst of remonstrance and entreaty on the part of the poor mother. Mrs. Arundel went down upon her knees before her son, imploring him not to leave Dangerfield till his strength was recovered; imploring him to let her telegraph a summons to Richard Paulette; to let her go herself to Marchmont Towers in search of Mary; to do anything rather than carry out the one mad purpose that he was bent on — the purpose of going himself to look for his wife.
The mother’s tears and prayers were vain; no adamant was ever firmer than the young soldier.
“She is my wife, mother,” he said; “I have sworn to protect and cherish her; and I have reason to think she has fallen into merciless hands. If I die upon the road, I must go to her. It is not a case in which I can do my duty by proxy. Every moment I delay is a wrong to that poor helpless girl. Be reasonable, dear mother, I implore you; I should suffer fifty times more by the torture of suspense if I stayed here, than I can possibly suffer in a railroad journey from here to Lincolnshire.”
The soldier’s strong will triumphed over every opposition. The provincial doctors held up their hands, and protested against the madness of their patient; but without avail. All that either Mrs. Arundel or the doctors could do, was to make such preparations and arrangements as would render the weary journey easier; and it was under the mother’s superintendence that the air-cushions, the brandy-flasks, the hartshorn, sal-volatile, and railway-rugs, had been provided for the Captain’s comfort.
It was thus that, after a blank interval of three months, Edward Arundel, like some creature newly risen from the grave, returned to Swampington, upon his way to Marchmont Towers.
The delay seemed endless to this restless passenger, sitting in the empty waiting-room of the quiet Lincolnshire station, though the ostler and stable-boys at the “George” were bestirring themselves with good-will, urged on by Mr. Morrison’s promises of liberal reward for their trouble, and though the man who was to drive the carriage lost no time in arraying himself for the journey. Captain Arundel looked at his watch three times while he sat in that dreary Swampington waiting-room. There was a clock over the mantelpiece, but he would not trust to that.
“Eight o’clock!” he muttered. “It will be ten before I get to the Towers, if the carriage doesn’t come directly.”
He got up, and walked from the waiting-room to the platform, and from the platform to the door of the station. He was so weak as to be obliged to support himself with his stick; and even with that help he tottered and reeled sometimes like a drunken man. But, in his eager impatience, he was almost unconscious of his own weakness.
“Will it never come?” he muttered. “Will it never come?”
At last, after an intolerable delay, as it seemed to the young man, the carriage-and-pair from the George Inn rattled up to the door of the station, with Mr. Morrison upon the box, and a postillion loosely balanced upon one of the long-legged, long-backed, bony grey horses. Edward Arundel got into the vehicle before his valet could alight to assist him.
“Marchmont Towers!” he cried to the postillion; “and a five-pound note if you get there in less than an hour.”
He flung some money to the officials who had gathered about the door to witness his departure, and who had eagerly pressed forward to render him that assistance which, even in his weakness, he disdained.
These men looked gravely at each other as the carriage dashed off into the fog, blundering and reeling as it went along the narrow half-made road, that led from the desert patch of waste ground upon which the station was built into the high-street of Swampington.
“Marchmont Towers!” said one of the men, in a tone that seemed to imply that there was something ominous even in the name of the Lincolnshire mansion. “What does he want at Marchmont Towers, I wonder?”
“Why, don’t you know who he is, mate?” responded the other man, contemptuously.
“He’s Parson Arundel’s nevy — the young officer that some folks said ran away with the poor young miss oop at the Towers.”
“My word! is he now? Why, I shouldn’t ha’ known him.”
“No; he’s a’most like the ghost of what he was, poor young chap. I’ve heerd as he was in that accident as happened last August on the Sou’-Western.”
The railway official shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s all a queer story,” he said. “I can’t make out naught about it; but I know I shouldn’t care to go up to the Towers after dark.”
Marchmont Towers had evidently fallen into rather evil repute amongst these simple Lincolnshire people.
The carriage in which Edward Arundel rode was a superannuated old chariot, whose uneasy springs rattled and shook the sick man to pieces. He groaned aloud every now and then from sheer physical agony; and yet I almost doubt if he knew that he suffered, so superior in its intensity was the pain of his mind to every bodily torture. Whatever consciousness he had of his racked and aching limbs was as nothing in comparison to the racking anguish of suspense, the intolerable agony of anxiety, which seemed multiplied by every moment. He sat with his face turned towards the open window of the carriage, looking out steadily into the night. There was nothing before him but a blank darkness and thick fog, and a flat country blotted out by the falling rain; but he strained his eyes until the pupils dilated painfully, in his desire to recognise some landmark in the hidden prospect.
“When shall I get there?” he cried aloud, in a paroxysm of rage and grief. “My own one, my pretty one, my wife, when shall I get to you?”
He clenched his thin hands until the nails cut into his flesh. He stamped upon the floor of the carriage. He cursed the rusty, creaking springs, the slow-footed horses, the pools of water through which the wretched animals floundered pastern-deep. He cursed the darkness of the night, the stupidity of the postillion, the length of the way — everything, and anything, that kept him back from the end which he wanted to reach.
At last the end came. The carriage drew up before the tall iron gates, behind which stretched, dreary and desolate as some patch of common-land, that melancholy waste which was called a park.
A light burned dimly in the lower window of the lodge — a little spot that twinkled faintly red and luminous through the darkness and the rain; but the iron gates were as closely shut as if Marchmont Towers had been a prison-house. Edward Arundel was in no humour to linger long for the opening of those gates. He sprang from the carriage, reckless of the weakness of his cramped limbs, before the valet could descend from the rickety box-seat, or the postillion could get off his horse, and shook the wet and rusty iron bars with his own wasted hands. The gates rattled, but resisted the concussion; they had evidently been locked for the night. The young man seized an iron ring, dangling at the end of a chain, which hung beside one of the stone pillars, and rang a peal that resounded like an alarm-signal through the darkness. A fierce watchdog far away in the distance howled dismally at the summons, and the dissonant shriek of a peacock sounded across the flat.
The door of the lodge was opened about five minutes after the bell had rung, and an old man peered out into the night, holding a candle shaded by his feeble hand, and looking suspiciously towards the gate.
“Who is it?” he said.
“It is I, Captain Arundel. Open the gate, please.”
The man, who was very old, and whose intellect seemed to have grown as dim and foggy as the night itself, reflected for a few moments, and then mumbled —
“Cap’en Arundel! Ay, to be sure, to be sure. Parson Arundel’s nevy; ay, ay.”
He went back into the lodge, to the disgust and aggravation of the young soldier, who rattled fiercely at the gate once more in his impatience. But the old man emerged presently, as tranquil as if the blank November night had been some sunshiny noontide in July, carrying a lantern and a bunch of keys, one of which he proceeded in a leisurely manner to apply to the great lock of the gate.
“Let me in!” cried Edward Arundel. “Man alive! do you think I came down here to stand all night staring through these iron bars? Is Marchmont Towers a prison, that you shut your gates as if they were never to be opened until the Day of Judgment?”
The old man responded with a feeble, chirpy laugh, an audible grin, senile and conciliatory.
“We’ve no need to keep t’ geates open arter dark,” he said; “folk doan’t coome to the Toowers arter dark.”
He had succeeded by this time in turning the key in the lock; one of the gates rolled slowly back upon its rusty hinges, creaking and groaning as if in hoarse protest against all visitors to the Towers; and Edward Arundel entered the dreary domain which John Marchmont had inherited from his kinsman.
The postillion turned his horses from the highroad without the gates into the broad drive leading up to the mansion. Far away, across the wet flats, the broad western front of that gaunt stone dwelling-place frowned upon the travellers, its black grimness only relieved by two or three dim red patches, that told of lighted windows and human habitation. It was rather difficult to associate friendly flesh and blood with Marchmont Towers on this dark November night. The nervous traveller would have rather expected to find diabolical denizens lurking within those black and stony walls; hideous enchantments beneath that rain-bespattered roof; weird and incarnate horrors brooding by deserted hearths, and fearful shrieks of souls in perpetual pain breaking upon the stillness of the night.
Edward Arundel had no thought of these things. He knew that the place was darksome and gloomy, and that, in very spite of himself, he had always been unpleasantly impressed by it; but he knew nothing more. He only wanted to reach the house without delay, and to ask for the young wife whom he had parted with upon a balmy August evening three months before. He wanted this passionately, almost madly; and every moment made his impatience wilder, his anxiety more intense. It seemed as if all the journey from Dangerfield Park to Lincolnshire was as nothing compared to the space that still lay between him and Marchmont Towers.
“We’ve done it in double-quick time, sir,” the postillion said, complacently pointing to the steaming sides of his horses. “Master’ll gie it to me for driving the beasts like this.”
Edward Arundel looked at the panting animals. They had brought him quickly, then, though the way had seemed so long.
“You shall have a five-pound note, my lad,” he said, “if you get me up to yonder house in five minutes.”
He had his hand upon the door of the carriage, and was leaning against it for support, while he tried to recover enough strength with which to clamber into the vehicle, when his eye was caught by some white object flapping in the rain against the stone pillar of the gate, and made dimly visible in a flickering patch of light from the lodge-keeper’s lantern.
“What’s that?” he cried, pointing to this white spot upon the moss-grown stone.
The old man slowly raised his eyes to the spot towards which the soldier’s finger pointed.
“That?” he mumbled. “Ay, to be sure, to be sure. Poor young lady! That’s the printed bill as they stook oop. It’s the printed bill, to be sure, to be sure. I’d a’most forgot it. It ain’t been much good, anyhow; and I’d a’most forgot it.”
“The printed bill! the young lady!” gasped Edward Arundel, in a hoarse, choking voice.
He snatched the lantern from the lodge-keeper’s hand with a force that sent the old man reeling and tottering several paces backward; and, rushing to the stone pillar, held the light up above his head, on a level with the white placard which had attracted his notice. It was damp and dilapidated at the edges; but that which was printed upon it was as visible to the soldier as though each commonplace character had been a fiery sign inscribed upon a blazing scroll.
This was the announcement which Edward Arundel read upon the gate-post of Marchmont Towers:—
“ONE HUNDRED POUNDS REWARD. — Whereas Miss Mary Marchmont left her home on Wednesday last, October 17th, and has not since been heard of, this is to give notice that the above reward will be given to any one who shall afford such information as will lead to her recovery if she be alive, or to the discovery of her body if she be dead. The missing young lady is eighteen years of age, rather below the middle height, of fair complexion, light-brown hair, and hazel eyes. When she left her home, she had on a grey silk dress, grey shawl, and straw bonnet. She was last seen near the river-side upon the afternoon of Wednesday, the 17th instant. “Marchmont Towers, October 20th, 1848.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05