The summer that year was a divine one, and we spent the greater part of our lives out of doors, driving, walking, sitting about the garden sometimes until long after dark. It was weather in which it was a kind of treason against Nature to waste an hour in the house.
We went very often for long rambles in Cumber Wood, winding up with an afternoon tea-drinking in the little study at the Priory — a home-like unceremonious entertainment which Milly delighted in. She used to seem to me on those occasions like some happy child playing at being mistress of the house.
Augusta Darrell was almost always with us. I was sorely puzzled and perplexed by her conduct at this time. It seemed to be all that a kind stepmother’s could be. Her old indifferent air had quite vanished; she was more cordial, more affectionately interested in Milly’s happiness than I had supposed it possible she could be. The girl was completely melted by the change in her manner, and responded to this new warmth with artless confidence in its reality.
I remembered all I had seen and all I had suspected, and I could not bring myself to believe implicitly in Milly’s stepmother. There was a shadowy fear, a vague distrust in my mind, not to be put away.
As I have said, she was always with us, entering into all our simple amusements with an appearance of girlish pleasure. Our picnics, our sketching expeditions, our afternoon tea-parties at the Priory, our croquet-matches with the Rector’s daughters, seemed all alike agreeable to her. I noticed that her toilet was always perfect on theses occasions, and that she neglected no art which could add to her attractiveness; but she never in any way attempted to absorb Mr. Egerton’s attention — she never ignored his position as Milly’s accepted suitor.
For a long time I was deceived by her manner — almost convinced that if she had ever cared for Angus Egerton in the past, it was a passion that had died out of her heart. But there came a day when one look of hers betrayed the real state of the case, and showed me that all this newly-awakened regard for Milly, and pleasant participation in her happiness, had been only a careful piece of acting. It was nothing but a look — one earnest, despairing, passionate look — that told me this, but it was a look that betrayed the secret of a life. From that moment I never again trusted Augusta Darrell.
With the beginning of autumn the weather changed, and there came a dull rainy season. Trouble came to us with the change of the weather. There was a good deal of low fever about Thornleigh, and Milly caught it. She had never neglected her visit amongst the poor, even in favour of those pleasant engagements with Angus Egerton; and there is no doubt she had taken the fever from some of the cottagers.
She was not alarmingly ill, nor was the fever supposed to be contagious, except under certain conditions. Mr. Hale, the Thornleigh doctor, made very light of the business, and assured us that his patient would be as well as ever in a week’s time. But in the mean while my dear girl kept her room, and I nursed her, with the assistance of her devoted little maid.
Mr. Egerton came every day, generally twice a day, to inquire about the invalid’s progress, and would stay for half an hour, or longer, talking to Mrs. Darrell or to me. He was very much depressed by this illness, and impatient for his betrothed’s recovery. He had been strictly forbidden to see her, as perfect repose was an essential condition to her well-being.
The week was nearly over, and Milly had improved considerably. She was now able to sit up for an hour or two every day, and the doctor promised Mr. Egerton that she should be in the drawing-room early in the following week. The weather had been incessantly wet during this time — dull, hopeless, perpetual rain day after day, without a break in the leaden sky. But at last there came a fine evening, and I went down to the terrace to take a solitary walk after my long imprisonment. It was between six and seven o’clock; Milly was asleep, and there was no probability of my being wanted in the sick-room for half an hour or so. I left ample instructions with my handy little assistant, and went down for my constitutional, muffled in a warm shawl.
It was dusk when I went out, and everything was unusually quiet, not a leaf was stirring in the stagnant atmosphere. Late as it was, the evening was almost oppressively warm, and I was glad to throw off my shawl. I walked up and down the terrace in front of the Hall for about ten minutes, and then went round towards the drawing-room windows. Before I had quite reached the first of these, I was arrested by a sound so strange that I stopped involuntarily to listen. Throughout all that followed, I had no time to consider whether I was doing right or wrong in hearing what I did hear; but I believe if I had had ample leisure for deliberation, it would have come to the same thing — I should have listened. What I heard was of such vital consequence to the girl I loved, that I think loyalty to her outweighed any treachery against the speaker.
The strange sound that brought me to a standstill close to the wide-open window was the sound of a woman’s passionate sobbing — such a storm of weeping as one does not hear many times in a life. I have never heard anything like it until that night.
Angus Egerton’s sonorous voice broke in upon those tempestuous sobs almost angrily:
‘Augusta, this is supreme folly.’
The sobs went on for some minutes longer unchecked. I heard his step sounding heavily as he walked up and down the room.
‘I am waiting to hear the meaning of all this,’ he said by and by. ‘I suppose there is some meaning.’
‘O Angus, is it so easy for you to forget the past?’
‘It was forgotten long ago,’ he answered, ‘by both of us, I should think. When my mother bribed you to leave Ilfracombe, you bartered my love and my happiness for the petty price she was able to pay. I was a weak fool in those days, and I took the business to heart bitterly enough, God knows; but the lesson was a useful one, and it served its turn. I have never trusted myself to love any woman since that day, till I met the pure young creature who is to be my wife. Her truth is above all doubt; she will not sell her birthright for a mess of pottage.’
‘The mess of pottage was not for me, Angus. It was my father’s bargain, not mine. I was told that you had done with me — that you had never meant to marry me. Yes, Angus, your mother told me that with her own lips — told me that she interfered to save me from misery and dishonour. And then I was hurried off to a cheap French convent, to learn to provide for myself. A couple of years’ schooling was the price I received for my broken heart. That was what your mother called making me a lady. I think I should have gone mad in those two dreary years, if it had not been for my passionate love of music. I gave myself up to that with my whole soul; my heart was dead; and they told me I made more progress in two years than other girls made in six. I had nothing else to live for.’
‘Except the hope of a rich husband,’ said Mr. Egerton, with a sneer.
‘O God, how cruel a man can to be a woman he has once loved!’ cried Mrs. Darrell passionately. ‘Yes, I did marry a rich man, Angus; but I never schemed or tried to win him. The chance came to me without a hope or a thought of mine. It was the chance of rescue from the dreariest life of drudgery that a poor dependent creature ever lived, and I took it. But I have never forgotten you, Angus Egerton, not for one hour of my life.’
‘I am sorry you should have taken the trouble to remember me,’ he answered very coldly. ‘For some years of my life I made it my chief business to forget you, and all the pain connected with our acquaintance; and having succeeded in doing that, it seems a pity that we should disturb the stagnant waters of that dead lake which men call the past.’
‘Would to God that we had never met again!’ she said.
‘I can quite echo that aspiration, if we are likely to have many such scenes as this.’
‘Cruel — cruel!’ she muttered. ‘O Angus, I have been so patient! I have clung to hope in the face of despair. When my husband died I fancied your old love would reawaken. How can such things die? I thought it was to me you would come back — to me, whom you once loved so passionately — not to that girl. You came back to her, and still I was patient. I set myself against her, to win back your love. Yes, Angus, I hoped to do that till very lately. And then I began to see that it was all useless. She is younger and handsomer than I.’
‘She is better than you, Augusta. It was not her beauty that won me, but something nobler and rarer than beauty: it was her perfect nature. The more faulty we are ourselves, the more fondly we cling to a good woman. But I don’t want to say hard things, Augusta. Pray let us put all this folly aside at once and for ever. You took your course in the past, and it has landed you in a very prosperous position. Let me take mine in the present, and let us be friends, if possible.’
‘You know that it is not possible. We must be all the world to each other, or the bitterest enemies.’
‘I shall never be your enemy, Mrs. Darrell.’
‘But I am yours; yes, I am yours from this night, and hers. You think I can look on tamely, and see you devoted to that girl! I have only been playing a part. I thought it was in my power to win you back.’
All this was said with a kind of passionate recklessness, as if the speaker, having suddenly thrown off her mask, scarcely cared how utterly she degraded herself.
‘Good-night, Mrs. Darrell. You will think of these things more wisely to-morrow. Let us be civil to each other, at least, while circumstances bring us together; and for God’s sake be kind to your stepdaughter! Do not think of her as a rival; my love for you had died long before I saw her. You need bear no malice against her on that account. Good-night.’
I heard the drawing-room door open and shut, and knew that he was gone. I walked on past the open windows, not caring if Mrs. Darrell saw me. It might be better for Milly, perhaps, that she should know I had heard her secret, and had been put upon my guard. But I do not think she saw me.
It was about a quarter of an hour later when I went in, and it was quite dark by that time. In the hall I met Mrs. Darrell, dressed for walking.
‘I am going round the shrubberies, Miss Crofton,’ she said. ‘Insupportably close to-night, is it not? I think we shall all have the fever if this weather lasts.’
She did not wait for my answer, but passed out quickly. I went back to Milly’s room, and found her still sleeping peacefully. Ten minutes afterwards I heard the rain beating against the windows, and knew that it had set in for a wet night.
‘Mrs. Darrell will not be able to go far,’ I thought.
I sat by the bedside for some time thinking of what I had heard. It was something to have had so strong a proof of Angus Egerton’s loyalty to my dear girl; and assured of that, I did not fear Mrs. Darrell’s malice. Yet I could not help wishing that the marriage had been appointed for an earlier date, and that the time which stepmother and daughter were to spend together had been shorter.
Milly woke, and sat up for about half an hour, supported by pillows, to take a cup of tea, while I talked to her a little about the pleasantest subjects I could think of. She asked if Mr. Egerton had been at Thornleigh that evening.
‘Yes, dear, he has been.’
‘Did you see him, Mary?’
‘No; I did not see him.’
She gave a little disappointed sigh. It was her delight to hear me repeat his messages to her, word for word, ever so many times over.
‘Then you have nothing to tell me about him, dear?’
‘Nothing; except that I know he loves you.’
‘Ah, Mary, there was a time when you doubted him.’
‘That time is quite past and gone, dear.’
She kissed me as she gave me back her cup and saucer, and promised to go to sleep again, while I went to my room to write a long letter home.
I was occupied in this way for more than an hour; and then, having sealed my letter, went down with it to the hall, to put it on a table where all letters intended to be taken to the post in the morning were placed over-night.
It was nearly ten o’clock by this time, and I was startled by the sound of the hall-door opening softly from without, while I was putting down my letter. I looked round quietly, and saw Mrs. Darrell coming in, with dripping garments.
‘Good gracious me!’ I cried involuntarily; ‘have you been out all this time in the rain, Mrs. Darrell?’
‘Yes, I have been out in the rain, Miss Crofton,’ she answered in a vexed impatient tone. ‘Is that so very shocking to your sober ideas of propriety? I could not endure the house to-night. One has feverish fancies sometimes — at least I have; and I preferred being out in the rain to not being out at all. Good-night.’
She gave me a haughty nod, and ran up-stairs with a quick light step. The old butler came to lock and bolt the hall-door as the clock struck ten, according to unalterable custom; and I went back to my room, wondering what could have kept Mrs. Darrell out so long — whether she had been upon some special errand, or had only been wandering about the grounds in a purposeless way.
For some days Milly went on very well; then there came a little change for the worse. The symptoms were not quite so favourable. Mr. Hale assured us that there was no reason for alarm, the recovery was only a little retarded. He had not the least doubt that all would go well. Mr. Egerton was very quick to take fright, however, and insisted on Dr. Lomond, a famous provincial physician, being summoned immediately from Manchester.
The great man came, and his opinion coincided entirely with that of Mr. Hale. There was not the slightest cause for fear. Careful nursing and quiet were the two essential points. The patient’s mind was to be made as happy as possible. The physician made minute inquiries as to the arrangements for attendance in the sick-room, and suggested a professional nurse. But I pleaded so hard against this, assuring him of my capacity for doing much more than I had to do, that he gave way, and consented to Milly being waited only by myself and her maid.
Mrs. Darrell was present during this conversation, and I was rather surprised by her taking my side of the question with regard to the nursing, as it was her usual habit to oppose me upon all subjects. To-day she was singularly gracious.
Another week went by, and there was no change for the better, nor any very perceptible change for the worse. The patient was a little weaker, and suffered from a depression of mind, against which all my efforts were vain.
Angus Egerton came twice daily during this week, but he rarely saw Mrs. Darrell. I think he studiously avoided meeting her after that painful scene in the drawing-room. It was for me he inquired, and he used to come up-stairs to the corridor outside Milly’s room, and stand there talking to me in a low voice, and feeling a kind of satisfaction, I believe, in being so near his darling.
Once I ventured to tell her that he was there, and to let him speak a few words for her to hear. But the sound of the voice she loved so well had such an agitating effect upon her, that I sorely repented my imprudence, and took good care not to repeat it.
So the days went by, in that slow dreary way in which time passes when those we love are ill; and it seemed, in the dead calm of the sick-room, as if all the business of life had come to a stand-still.
I did not see much of Mrs. Darrell during this period. She came to Milly’s door two or three times a day to ask about her progress, with all appearance of affection and anxiety; but throughout the rest of the day she remained secluded in her own rooms. I noticed that she had a wan haggard look at this time, like that of a person who had existed for a long while without sleep; but this in no manner surprised me, after that scene in the drawing-room.
As the time went by, I felt that my strength was beginning to fail, and I sadly feared that we might have at last to employ the professional aid which the Manchester physician had suggested. I had slept very little from the beginning of Milly’s illness, being too anxious to sleep when I had the opportunity of doing so; and I now began to suffer from the effects of this prolonged sleeplessness. But I struggled resolutely against fatigue, determined to see my dear girl through the fever if possible; and I succeeded wonderfully, by the aid of unlimited cups of strong tea, and always ably seconded by Susan Dodd, Milly’s devoted maid.
Between us we two performed all the duties of the sick-room. The medicines, wine, soups, jellies, and all things required for the invalid were kept in the dressing-room, which communicated with the bedroom by one door, and had another door opening on to the corridor.
The sick-room, which was very large and airy, was by this means kept free from all litter; and Susan and I took pleasure in making it look bright and fresh. I used to fetch a bouquet from the garden every morning for the little table by the bed. At the very commencement of Milly’s illness I had missed Peter, Mrs. Thatcher’s grandson. I asked one of the men what had become of him, and was told that he had taken the fever and was lying ill at his grandmother’s cottage. I mentioned this to Mrs. Darrell, and asked her permission to send him some wine and other little comforts, to which she assented.
The Manchester physician came a second time after a week’s interval, and on this occasion he was not so positive in his opinion as to the case. He did not consider that there was peril as yet, he said; but the patient was weaker, and he was by no means satisfied. He prescribed a change of medicine, repeated his injunctions about care and quiet; and so departed, after requesting Mr. Hale to telegraph for him in the event of any change for the worse.
I was a good deal depressed by his manner this time, and went back to my dear girl’s room with a heavier heart than I had known since her illness began.
It was my habit to take whatever sleep I could in the course of the afternoon, leaving Susan Dodd on guard, so as to be able to sit up all night. Susan had begged very hard to share this night-watching, but I insisted upon her taking her usual rest, so as to be bright and fresh in the day. I felt the night-work was the more important duty, and could trust that to no one but myself.
Unfortunately it happened very often that I was quite unable to sleep when I went to my room in the afternoon to lie down. Half my time I used to lie there wide awake thinking of my darling girl, and praying for her speedy recovery. On the afternoon that followed the Manchester doctor’s second visit I went to my room as usual; but I was more than ever disinclined to sleep. For the first time since the fever began I felt a horrible dread that the end might be fatal; and I lay tossing restlessly from side to side, meditating on every word and look of the physician’s, and trying to convince myself that there was no real ground for my alarm.
I had been lying awake like this for more than an hour, when I heard the door of Milly’s dressing-room — which was close to my door — closed softly; and with a nervous quickness to take alarm I sprang up, and went out into the corridor, thinking that Susan was coming to summon me. I found myself face to face, not with Susan Dodd, but with Mrs. Darrell.
She gave a little start at seeing me, and stood with her hand still upon the handle of the dressing-room door, looking at me with the strangest expression I ever saw in any human countenance. Alarm, defiance, hatred — what was it?
‘I thought you were asleep,’ she said.
‘I have not been able to sleep this afternoon.’
‘You are a bad person for a nurse, Miss Crofton, if you cannot sleep at will. I am afraid you are nervous, too, by the way you darted out of the room just now.’
‘I heard that door shut, and thought Susan was coming to call me.’
‘I had just been in to see how the invalid was going on — that is all.’
She passed me, and went back to her own apartments, which were on the other side of the house. I felt that it was quite useless trying to sleep; so I returned to my room only to change my dressing-gown for my dress, and then went back to Milly. She had been sleeping very quietly, Susan told me.
‘I suppose you told Mrs. Darrell that all was going on well when she came to inquire just now?’ I said.
‘Mrs. Darrell hasn’t been since you went to lie down, miss,’ the girl answered, looking surprised at my question.
‘Why, Susan, you must surely forget. Mrs. Darrell was in the dressing-room scarcely ten minutes ago. I heard her coming out, and went to see who was there. Didn’t she come in here to inquire about Miss Darrell?’
‘No, indeed, miss.’
‘Then I suppose she must have peeped in at the door and seen that Miss Darrell was asleep,’ I said.
‘I don’t see how she could have opened that door without my hearing her, miss. It was shut fast, I know.’
It had been shut when I went in through the dressing-room. I was puzzled by this incident, small as it was. I knew that Augusta Darrell hated her stepdaughter, and I could not bear to think of that secret enemy hovering about the sick-room. I was puzzled too by the look which I had seen in her face — no common look, and not easy to be understood. That she hated me, I had no doubt; but there had been fear as well as aversion in that look, and I could not imagine any possible reason for her fearing such an insignificant person as myself.
The rest of that evening and night passed without any event worth recording. I kept the door of communication between the bedroom and dressing-room wide open all night, determined that Augusta Darrell should not be in that room without my knowledge; but the night passed, and she never came near us.
When I went into the garden early the next morning to gather the flowers for Milly’s room, I found Peter at work again. He looked very white and feeble, scarcely fit to be about just yet; but there he was, sweeping the fallen leaves into little heaps, ready for his barrow. He came to me while I was cutting the late roses for my bouquet, and asked after Milly. When I had answered him he loitered by me for a little in a curious way, as if he wanted to say something else; but I was too full of my own thoughts and cares to pay much attention to him.
The next day, and the next, brought no change in my darling, and I was growing every hour more anxious. I could see that Mr. Hale was puzzled and uneasy, though he said he saw no reason for telegraphing to Manchester, yet awhile. He was very attentive, and was reputed to be very clever; and I knew that he was really attached to Milly, whom he had attended from her infancy.
Angus Egerton saw me twice every day; and these brief interviews had now become very painful to me. I found it so difficult to cheer him with hopeful words, when my own heart was hourly growing heavier, and the fears that had been vague and shadowy were gathering strength and shape. I was very tired, but I held out resolutely; and I had never once slept for so much as a quarter of an hour upon my watch, until the second night after that meeting with Mrs. Darrell at the door of the dressing-room.
That night I was seized with an unconquerable sleepiness, about an hour after I had dismissed Susan Dodd. The room was very quiet, not a sound except the ticking of the pretty little clock upon the mantelpiece. Milly was fast asleep, and I was sitting on a low chair by the fire trying to read, when my drowsiness overcame me, my heavy eyelids fell, and I went off into a feverish kind of slumber, in which I was troubled with an uneasy consciousness that I ought to be awake.
I had slept in this way for a little more than an hour, when I suddenly started up broad awake. [In] the intense quiet of the room I had heard a sound like the chinking of glass, and I fancied that Milly had stirred.
There was a table near her bed, with a glass of cooling drink and a bottle of water upon it. I thought she must have stretched out her hand for this glass, and that in so doing she had pushed the glass against the bottle; but to my surprise I found her lying quite still, and fast asleep. The sound must have come from some other direction — from the dressing-room, perhaps.
I went into the dressing-room. There was no one there. No trace of the smallest disturbance among the things. The medicine-bottles and the medicine-glass stood on the little table exactly as I had left them. I was very careful and precise in my arrangement of these things, and it would have been difficult for the slightest interference with them to have escaped me. What could that sound have been — some accidental shiver of the glass, stirred by a breath of wind, one of those mysterious movements of inanimate objects which are so apt to occur in the dead hours of the night, and which seem always more or less ghostly to a nervous watcher? Could it have been only accidental? or had Mrs. Darrell been prowling stealthily in and out of that room again?
Why should she have been there? What could her secret coming and going mean? What purpose could she have in hovering about the sick girl? what could her hatred profit itself by such uneasy watchfulness, unless — Unless what? An icy coldness came over me, and I shook like a leaf, as a dreadful thought took shape in my mind. What if that desperate woman’s hatred took the most awful form? what if her secret presence in that room meant murder?
I took up the medicine-bottle and examined it minutely. In colour, in odour, in taste, the medicine seemed to me exactly what it had been from the time it had been altered, in accordance with the Manchester doctor’s second prescription. Mr. Hale’s label was on the bottle, and the quantity of the contents was exactly what it had been after I gave Milly her last dose — one dose gone out of the full bottle.
‘O, no, no, no,’ I thought to myself; ‘I must be mad to imagine anything so awful. A woman may be weak, and wicked, and jealous, when she has loved as intensely as this woman seems to have loved Angus Egerton; but that is no reason she should become a murderess.’
I stood with the medicine-bottle in my hand sorely perplexed. What could I do? Should I suspend the medicine for to-night, at the risk of retarding the cure? or should I give it in spite of that half suspicion that it had been tampered with?
What ground had I for such a suspicion? At that moment nothing but the sound that had awakened me, the chinking sound of one glass knocked against another.
Had I really heard any such sound, or had it only been a delusion of my half sleeping brain? While I stood weighing this question, a sudden recollection flashed across my mind, and I had no longer ground for doubt.
The cork of the medicine-bottle, when I gave Milly her last dose, had been too large for the bottle; so much so, that I had found it difficult to put it in again after giving the medicine. The cork of the bottle which I now held in my hand went in loosely enough. It was a smaller and an older-looking cork. This decided me. I placed the bottle under lock and key in Milly’s wardrobe, and I gave her no more medicine that night.
There was no fear of my sleeping at my post after this. My thoughts for the rest of that night were full of horror and bewilderment. My course seemed clear enough, in one respect. The proper person to confide in would be Mr. Hale. He would be able to discover whether the medicine had been tampered with, and it would be his business to protect his patient.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05