If Honoria Eversleigh had endured a night of anguish amid the wild desolation of Yarborough Tower, Sir Oswald had suffered an agony scarcely less terrible at Raynham. He had been summoned from the dinner-table in the marquee by one of his servants, who told him that a boy was waiting for him with a letter, which he would entrust to no one but Sir Oswald Eversleigh himself.
Mystified by the strange character of this message, Sir Oswald went immediately to see the boy who had brought it. He found a lad waiting for him under the trees near the marquee. The boy handed him a letter, which he opened and read immediately.
The contents of that letter were well calculated to agitate and disturb him.
The letter was anonymous. It consisted of the following words:—
“If Sir Oswald Eversleigh wishes to be convinced of his wife’s truth or falsehood, let him ride back to Raynham without a moment’s delay. There he will receive ample evidence of her real character. He may have to wait; but the friend who writes this advises him to wait patiently. He will not wait in vain.
“A NAMELESS COUNSELLOR.”
A fortnight before, Sir Oswald would have flung such a letter as this away from him with indignant scorn; but the poison of suspicion had done its corroding work.
For a little time Sir Oswald hesitated, half-inclined to despise the mysterious warning. All his better feelings prompted him to disregard this nameless correspondent — all his noblest impulses urged him to confide blindly and unquestioningly in the truth of the wife he loved; but jealousy — that dark and fatal passion — triumphed over every generous feeling, and he yielded to the influence of his hidden counsellor.
“No harm can arise from my return to Raynham,” he thought. “My friends yonder are enjoying themselves too much to trouble themselves about my absence. If this anonymous correspondent is fooling me, I shall soon discover my mistake.”
Having once arrived at this determination, Sir Oswald lost no time in putting it into execution. He ordered his horse, Orestes, and rode away as fast as the animal would carry him.
Arrived at Raynham, he inquired if any one had asked for him, but was told there had not been any visitors at the castle throughout the day.
Again and again Sir Oswald consulted the anonymous letter. It told him to wait, but for what was he to wait? Half ashamed of himself for having yielded to the tempter, restless and uneasy in spirit, he wandered from room to room in the twilight, abandoned to gloomy and miserable thoughts.
The servants lighted the lamps in the many chambers of Raynham, while Sir Oswald paced to and fro — now in the long drawing-room; now in the library; now on the terrace, where the September moon shone broad and full. It was eleven o’clock when the sound of approaching wheels proclaimed the return of the picnic party; and until that hour the baronet had watched and waited without having been rewarded by the smallest discovery of any kind whatever. He felt bitterly ashamed of himself for having been duped by so shallow a trick.
“It is the handiwork of some kind friend; the practical joke of some flippant youngster, who thinks it a delightful piece of humour to play upon the jealousy of a husband of fifty,” mused the baronet, as he brooded over his folly. “I wish to heaven I could discover the writer of the epistle. He should find that it is rather a dangerous thing to trifle with a man’s feelings.”
Sir Oswald went himself to assist at the reception of his guests. He expected to see his wife arrive with the rest. For the moment, he forgot all about his suspicions of the last fortnight. He thought only of the anonymous letter, and the wrong which he had done Honoria in being influenced by its dark hints.
If he could have met his wife at that moment, when every impulse of his heart drew him towards her, all sense of estrangement would have melted away; all his doubts would have vanished before a smile from her. But though Sir Oswald found his wife’s barouche the first of the carriages, she was not in it. Lydia Graham told him how “dear Lady Eversleigh” had caused all the party such terrible alarm.
“I suppose she reached home two hours ago,” added the young lady. “She had more than an hour’s start of us; and with that light vehicle and spirited horse she and Mr. Carrington must have come so rapidly.”
“My wife and Mr. Carrington! What do you mean, Miss Graham?”
Lydia explained, and Reginald Eversleigh confirmed her statement. Lady Eversleigh had left the Wizard’s Cave more than an hour before the rest of the party, accompanied by Mr. Carrington.
No words can describe the consternation of Sir Oswald. He did his best to conceal his alarm; but the livid hue of his face, the ashen pallor of his lips, betrayed the intensity of his emotion. He sent out mounted grooms to search the different roads between the castle and the scene of the pic-nic; and then he left his guests without a word, and shut himself in his own apartments, to await the issue of the search.
Had any fatal accident happened to her and her companion? — or were Honoria Eversleigh and Victor Carrington two guilty creatures, who had abandoned themselves to the folly and madness of a wicked attachment, and had fled together, reckless alike of reputation and fortune?
He tried to believe that this latter chance was beyond the region of possibility; but horrible suspicions racked his brain as he paced to and fro, waiting for the issue of the search that was being made.
Better that he should be told that his wife had been found lying dead upon the hard, cruel road, than that he should hear that she had left him for another; a false and degraded creature!
“Why did she trust herself to the companionship of this man?” he asked himself. “Why did she disgrace herself by leaving her guests in the company of a young man who ought to be little more than a stranger to her? She is no ignorant or foolish girl; she has shown herself able to hold her own in the most trying positions. What madness could have possessed her, that she should bring disgrace upon herself and me by such conduct as this?”
The grooms came back after a search that had been utterly in vain. No trace of the missing lady had been discovered. Inquiries had been made everywhere along the road, but without result. No gig had been seen to pass between the neighbourhood of the Wizard’s Cave and Raynham Castle.
Sir Oswald abandoned himself to despair.
There was no longer any hope: his wife had fled from him. Bitter, indeed, was the penalty which he was called upon to pay for his romantic marriage — his blind confidence in the woman who had fascinated and bewitched him. He bowed his head beneath the blow, and alone, hidden from the cruel gaze of the world, he resigned himself to his misery.
All that night he sat alone, his head buried in his clasped hands, stunned and bewildered by his agony.
His valet, Joseph Millard, knocked at the door at the usual hour, anxious to assist at his master’s toilet; but the door was securely locked, and Sir Oswald told his servant that he needed no help. He spoke in a firm voice; for he knew that the valet’s ear would be keen to mark any evidence of his misery. When the man was gone, he rose up for the first time, and looked across the sunlit woods.
A groan of agony burst from his lips as he gazed upon that beautiful landscape.
He had brought his young wife to be mistress of this splendid domain. He had shown her that fair scene; and had told her that she was to be queen over all those proud possessions until the day of her death. No hand was ever to rob her of them. They were the free gift of his boundless love! to be shared only by her children, should heaven bless her and her husband with inheritors for this ancient estate. He had never been weary of testifying his devotion, his passionate love; and yet, before she had been his wife three months, she left him for another.
While he stood before the open window, with these bitter thoughts in his mind, he heard the sound of wheels in the corridor without. The wheels belonged to an invalid chair, used by Captain Copplestone when the gout held him prisoner, a self-propelling chair, in which the captain could make his way where he pleased.
The captain knocked at his old comrade’s door.
“Let me in, Oswald” he said; “I want to see you immediately.”
“Not this morning, my dear Copplestone; I can’t see any one this morning,” answered the baronet.
“You can see me, Oswald. I must and will see you, and I shall stop here till you let me in.”
A loud knock at the door with a heavy-headed cane accompanied the close of his speech.
Sir Oswald opened the door, and admitted the captain, who pushed his chair dexterously through the doorway.
“Well,” said this eccentric visitor, when Sir Oswald had shut the door, “so you’ve not been to bed all night?”
“How do you know that?”
“By your looks, for one thing: and by the appearance of your bed, which I can see through the open door yonder, for another. Pretty goings on, these!”
“A heavy sorrow has fallen upon me, Copplestone.”
“Your wife has run away — that’s what you mean, I suppose?”
“What!” cried Sir Oswald. “It is all known, then?”
“What is all known?”
“That my wife has left me.”
“Well, my dear Oswald, there is a rumour of that kind afloat, and I have come here in consequence of that rumour. But I don’t believe there’s a word of truth in it.”
The baronet turned from his friend with a bitter smile of derision.
“I may strive to hoodwink the world, Copplestone,” he said, “but I have no wish to deceive you. My wife has left me — there is no doubt of it.”
“I don’t believe it,” cried the captain. “No, Oswald Eversleigh, I don’t believe it. You know what I am. I’m not quite like the Miller of Dee, for I do care for somebody; and that somebody is my oldest friend. When I first heard of your marriage, I told you that you were a fool. That was plain-spoken enough, if you like. When I saw your wife, I told you that had changed my mind, and that I thought your folly an excusable one. If ever I saw purity and truth in a woman’s face, I saw them in the face of Lady Eversleigh; and I will stake my life that she is as true as steel.”
Sir Oswald clasped his friend’s hand, too deeply moved for words. There was unspeakable consolation in such friendship as this. For the first tame since midnight a ray of hope dawned upon him. He had always trusted in his old comrade’s judgment. Might he not trust in him still?
When Captain Copplestone left him, he went to his dressing-room, and made even a more than usually careful toilet, and went to face “the world.”
In the great dining-room he found all his guests assembled, and he took his seat amongst them calmly, though the sight of Honoria’s empty place cut him to the heart.
Never, perhaps, was a more miserable meal eaten than that breakfast. There were long intervals of silence; and what little conversation there was appeared forced and artificial.
Perhaps the most self-possessed person — the calmest to all appearance, of the whole party — was Sir Oswald Eversleigh, so heroic an effort had he made over himself, in order to face the world proudly. He had a few words to say to every one; and was particularly courteous to the guests near him. He opened his letters with an unshaking hand. But he abstained from all allusion to his wife, or the events of the previous evening.
He had finished breakfast, and was leaving the room, when his nephew approached him —
“Can I speak to you for a few moments alone?” asked Reginald.
“Certainly. I am going to the library to write my letters. You can go with me, if you like.”
They went together to the library. As Sir Oswald closed the door, and turned to face his nephew, he perceived that Reginald was deadly pale.
“What is amiss?” he asked.
“You ask me that, my dear uncle, at a time when you ought to know that my sympathy for your sorrow —”
“Reserve your sympathy until it is needed,” answered the baronet, abruptly. “I dare say you mean well, my dear Reginald; but there are some subjects which I will suffer no man to approach.”
“I beg your pardon, sir. Then, in that case, I can tell you nothing. I fancied that it was my duty to bring you any information that reached me; but I defer to you entirely. The subject is a most unhappy one, and I am glad to be spared the pain involved in speaking of it.”
“What do you mean?” said the baronet. “If you have anything to tell me — anything that can throw light upon the mystery of my wife’s flight — speak out, and speak quickly. I am almost mad, Reginald. Forgive me, if I spoke harshly just now. You are my nephew, and the mask I wear before the world may be dropped in your presence.”
“I know nothing personally of Lady Eversleigh’s disappearance,” said Reginald; “but I have good reason to believe that Miss Graham could tell you much, if she chose to speak out. She has hinted at being in the secret, and I think it only right you should question her.”
“I will question her,” answered sir Oswald, starting to his feet. “Send her to me, Reginald.”
Mr. Eversleigh left his uncle, and Miss Graham very speedily appeared — looking the very image of unconscious innocence — and quite unable to imagine what “dear Sir Oswald” could want with her.
The baronet came to the point very quickly, and before Lydia had time for consideration, she had been made to give a full account of the scene which she had witnessed on the previous evening between Victor Carrington and Honoria.
Of course, Miss Graham told Sir Oswald that she had witnessed this strange scene in the most accidental manner. She had happened to be in a walk that commanded a view of the fir-grove.
“And you saw my wife agitated, clinging to that man?”
“Lady Eversleigh was terribly agitated.”
“And then you saw her take her place in the gig, of her own free will?”
“I did, Sir Oswald.”
“Oh, what infamy!” murmured the baronet; “what hideous infamy!”
It was to himself that he spoke rather than to Miss Graham. His eyes were fixed on vacancy, and it seemed as if he were scarcely aware of the young lady’s presence.
Lydia was almost terrified by that blank, awful look. She waited for a few moments, and then, finding that Sir Oswald questioned her no further, she crept quietly from the room, glad to escape from the sorrow-stricken husband. Malicious though she was, she believed that this time she had spoken the truth.
“He has reason to repent his romantic choice,” she thought as she left the library. “Perhaps now he will think that he might have done better by choosing a wife from his own set.”
The day wore on; Sir Oswald remained alone in the library, seated before a table, with his arms folded, his gaze fixed on empty space — a picture of despair.
The clock had struck many times; the hot afternoon sun blazed full upon the broad Tudor windows, when the door was opened gently, and some one came into the room. Sir Oswald looked up angrily, thinking it was one of the servants who had intruded on him.
It was his wife who stood before him, dressed in the white robes she had worn at the picnic; but wan and haggard, white as the dress she wore.
“Oswald,” she cried, with outstretched hands, and the look of one who did not doubt she would be welcome.
The baronet sprang to his feet, and looked at that pale face with a gaze of unspeakable indignation.
“And you dare to come back?” he exclaimed. “False-hearted adventuress — actress — hypocrite — you dare to come to me with that lying smile upon your face — after your infamy of last night!”
“I am neither adventuress, nor hypocrite, Oswald. Oh, where have your love and confidence vanished that you can condemn me unheard? I have done no wrong — not by so much as one thought that is not full of love for you! I am the helpless victim of the vilest plot that was ever concocted for the destruction of a woman’s happiness.”
A mocking laugh burst from the lips of Sir Oswald.
“Oh,” he cried, “so that is your story. You are the victim of a plot, are you? You were carried away by ruffians, I suppose? You did not go willingly with your paramour? Woman, you stand convicted of your treachery by the fullest evidence. You were seen to leave the Wizard’s Cave! You were seen clinging to Victor Carrington — were seen to go with him, willingly. And then you come and tell me you are the victim of a plot! Oh, Lady Eversleigh, this is too poor a story. I should have given you credit for greater powers of invention.”
“If I am guilty, why am I here?” asked Honoria.
“Shall I tell you why you are here?” cried Sir Oswald, passionately, “Look yonder, madam! look at those wide woodlands, the deer-park, the lakes and gardens; this is only one side of Raynham Castle. It was for those you returned, Lady Eversleigh, for the love of those — and those alone. Influenced by a mad and wicked passion, you fled with your lover last night; but no sooner did you remember the wealth you had lost, the position you had sacrificed, than you repented your folly. You determined to come back. Your doting husband would doubtless open his arms to receive you. A few imploring words, a tear or so, and the poor, weak dupe would be melted. This is how you argued; but you were wrong. I have been foolish. I have abandoned myself to the dream of a dotard; but the dream is past. The awakening has been rude, but it has been efficacious. I shall never dream again.”
“Oswald, will you not listen to my story?”
“No, madam, I will not give you the opportunity of making me a second time your dupe. Go — go back to your lover, Victor Carrington. Your repentance comes too late. The Raynham heritage will never be yours. Go back to your lover; or, if he will not receive you, go back to the gutter from which I took you.”
The cry of reproach went like a dagger to the heart of the baronet. But he steeled himself against those imploring tones. He believed that he had been wronged — that this woman was as false as she was beautiful.
“Oswald,” cried Honoria, “you must and shall hear my story. I demand a hearing as a right — a right which you could not withhold from the vilest criminal, and which you shall not withhold from me, your lawfully wedded and faithful wife. You may disbelieve my story, if you please — heaven knows it seems wild and improbable! — but you shall hear it. Yes, Oswald, you shall!”
She stood before him, drawn to her fullest height, confronting him proudly. If this was guilt, it was, indeed, shameless guilt. Unhappily, the baronet believed in the evidence of Lydia Graham, rather than in the witness of his wife’s truth. Why should Lydia have deceived him? he asked himself. What possible motive could she have for seeking to blight his wife’s fair name?
Honoria told her story from first to last; she told the history of her night of anguish. She spoke with her eyes fixed on her husband’s face, in which she could read the indications of his every feeling. As her story drew to a close, her own countenance grew rigid with despair, for she saw that her words had made no impression on the obdurate heart to which she appealed.
“I do not ask you if you believe me,” she said, when her story was finished. “I can see that you do not. All is over between us, Sir Oswald,” she added, in a tone of intense sadness —“all is over. You are right in what you said just now, cruel though your words were. You did take me from the gutter; you accepted me in ignorance of my past history; you gave your love and your name to a friendless, nameless creature; and now that circumstances conspire to condemn me, can I wonder if you, too, condemn — if you refuse to believe my declaration of my innocence? I do not wonder. I am only grieved that it should be so. I should have been so proud of your love if it could have survived this fiery ordeal — so proud! But let that pass. I would not remain an hour beneath this roof on sufferance. I am quite ready to go from this house to-day, at an hour’s warning, never to re-enter it. Raynham Castle is no more to me than that desolate tower in which I spent last night — without your love. I will leave you without one word of reproach, and you shall never hear my name, or see my face again.”
She moved towards the door as she spoke. There was a quiet earnestness in her manner which might have gone far to convince Oswald Eversleigh of her truth; but his mind was too deeply imbued with a belief in her falsehood. This dignified calm, this subdued resignation, seemed to him only the consummate art of a finished actress.
“She is steeped in falsehood to the very lips,” he thought. “Doubtless, the little she told me of the history of her childhood was as false as all the rest. Heaven only knows what shameful secrets may have been hidden in her past life!”
She had crossed the threshold of the door, when some sudden impulse moved him to follow her.
“Do not leave Raynham till you have heard further from me, Lady Eversleigh,” he said. “It will be my task to make all arrangements for your future life.”
His wife did not answer him. She walked towards the hall, her head bent, her eyes fixed on the ground.
“She will not leave the castle until she is obliged to do so,” thought Sir Oswald, as he returned to the library. “Oh, what a tissue of falsehood she tried to palm upon me! And she would have blackened my nephew’s name, in order to screen her own guilt!”
He rang a bell, and told the servant who answered it to fetch Mr. Eversleigh. His nephew appeared five minutes afterwards, still very pale and anxious-looking.
“I have sent for you, Reginald,” said the baronet, “because I have a duty to perform — a very painful duty — but one which I do not care to delay. It is now nearly a year and a half since I made a will which disinherited you. I had good reason for that step, as you know; but I have heard no further talk of your vices or your follies; and, so far as I can judge, you have undergone a reformation. It is not for me, therefore, to hold sternly to a determination which I had made in a moment of extreme anger: and I should perhaps have restored you to your old position ere this, had not a new interest absorbed my heart and mind. I have had cruel reason to repent my folly. I might feel resentment against you, on account of your friend’s infamy, but I am not weak enough for that. Victor Carrington and I have a terrible account to settle, and it shall be settled to the uttermost. I need hardly tell you that, if you hold any further communication with him, you will for ever forfeit my friendship.”
“My dear sir, you surely cannot suppose —”
“Do not interrupt me. I wish to say what I have to say, and to have done with this subject for ever. You know I have already told you the contents of the will which I made after my marriage. That will left the bulk of my fortune to my wife. That will must now be destroyed; and in the document which I shall substitute for it, your name will occupy its old place. Heaven grant that I do wisely, Reginald, and that you will prove yourself worthy of my confidence.”
“My dear uncle, your goodness overpowers me. I cannot find words to express my gratitude.”
“No thanks, Reginald. Remember that the change which restores you to your old position is brought about by my misery. Say no more. Better that an Eversleigh should be master of Raynham when I am dead and gone. And now leave me.”
The young man retired. His face betrayed conflicting emotions. Lost to all sense of honour though he was, the iniquity of the scheme by which he had succeeded weighed horribly upon his mind, and he was seized with a wild fear of the man through whose agency it had been brought about.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47