The brief pang of fear and remorse passed quickly away, and Reginald went out upon the terrace to look upon those woods which were once more his promised heritage; on which he could gaze, as of old, with the proud sense of possession. While looking over that fair domain, he forgot the hateful means by which he had re-established himself as the heir of Raynham. He forgot Victor Carrington — everything except his own good fortune. His heart throbbed with a sense of triumph.
He left the terrace, crossed the Italian garden, and made his way to the light iron gate which opened upon the park. Leaning wearily upon this gate, he saw an old man in the costume of a pedlar. A broad, slouched hat almost concealed his face, and a long iron-grey beard drooped upon his chest. His garments were dusty, as if with many a weary mile’s wandering on the parched high-roads, and he carried a large pack of goods upon his back.
The park was open to the public; and this man had, no doubt, come to the garden-gate in the hope of finding some servant who would be beguiled into letting him carry his wares to the castle, for the inspection of Sir Oswald’s numerous household.
“Stand aside, my good fellow, and let me pass,” said Reginald, as he approached the little gate.
The man did not stir. His arms were folded on the topmost bar of the gate, and he did not alter his attitude.
“Let me be the first to congratulate the heir of Raynham on his renewed hopes,” he said, quietly.
“Carrington!” cried Reginald; and then, after a pause, he asked, “What, in heaven’s name, is the meaning of this masquerade?”
The surgeon removed his broad-brimmed hat, and wiped his forehead with a hand that looked brown, wizen, and wrinkled as the hand of an old man. Nothing could have been more perfect than his disguise.
The accustomed pallor of his face was changed to the brown and sunburnt hue produced by constant exposure to all kinds of weather. A network of wrinkles surrounded the brilliant black eyes, which now shone under shaggy eyebrows of iron-grey.
“I should never have recognized you,” said Reginald, staring for some moments at his friend’s face, completely lost in surprise.
“Very likely not,” answered the surgeon, coolly; “I don’t want people to recognize me. A disguise that can by any possibility be penetrated is the most fatal mistake. I can disguise my voice as well as my face, as you will, perhaps, hear by and by. When talking to a friend there is no occasion to take so much trouble.”
“But why have you assumed this disguise?”
“Because I want to be on the spot; and you may imagine that, after having eloped with the lady of the house, I could not very safely show myself here in my own proper person.”
“What need had you to return? Your scheme is accomplished, is it not?”
“Well, not quite.”
“Is there anything more to be done?”
“Yes, there is something more.”
“What is the nature of that something?” asked Reginald.
“Leave that to me,” answered the surgeon; “and now you had better pass on, young heir of Raynham, and leave the poor old pedlar to smoke his pipe, and to watch for some passing maid-servant who will admit him to the castle.”
Reginald lingered, fascinated in some manner by the presence of his friend and counsellor. He wanted to penetrate the mystery hidden in the breast of his ally.
“How did you know that your scheme had succeeded?” he asked, presently.
“I read my success in your face as you came towards this gate just now. It was the face of an acknowledged heir; and now, perhaps, you will be good enough to tell me your news.”
Reginald related all that had happened; the use he had made of Lydia Graham’s malice; the interview with his uncle after Lady Eversleigh’s return.
“Good!” exclaimed Victor; “good from first to last! Did ever any scheme work so smoothly? That was a stroke of genius of yours, Reginald, the use you made of Miss Graham’s evidence. And so she was watching us, was she? Charming creature! how little she knows to what an extent we are indebted to her. Well, Reginald, I congratulate you. It is a grand thing to be the acknowledged heir of such an estate as this.”
He glanced across the broad gardens, blazing with rich masses of vivid colour, produced by the artistic arrangement of the flower-beds. He looked up to the long range of windows, the terrace, the massive towers, the grand old archway, and then he looked back at his friend, with a sinister light in his glittering black eyes.
“There is only one drawback,” he said.
“And that is —”
“That you may have to wait a very long time for your inheritance. Let me see; your uncle is fifty years of age, I think?”
“Yes; he is about fifty.” “And he has an iron constitution. He has led a temperate, hardy life. Such a man is as likely to live to be eighty as I am to see my fortieth birthday. And that would give you thirty years’ waiting: a long delay — a terrible trial of patience.”
“Why do you say these things?” cried Reginald, impatiently. “Do you want to make me miserable in the hour of our triumph? Do you mean that we have burdened our souls with all this crime and falsehood for nothing? You are mad, Victor!”
“No; I am only in a speculative mood. Thirty years! — thirty years would be a long time to wait.”
“Who says that I shall have to wait thirty years? My uncle may die long before that time.”
“Ah! to be sure! your uncle may die — suddenly, perhaps — very soon, it may be. The shock of his wife’s falsehood may kill him — after he has made a new will in your favour!”
The two men stood face to face, looking at each other.
“What do you mean?” Reginald asked; “and why do you look at me like that?”
“I am only thinking what a lucky fellow you would be if this grief that has fallen upon your uncle were to be fatal to his life.”
“Don’t talk like that, Carrington. I won’t think of such a thing. I am had enough, I know; but not quite so bad as to wish my uncle dead.”
“You would be sorry if he were dead, I suppose? Sorry — with this domain your own! with all power and pleasure that wealth can purchase for a man! You would be sorry, would you? You wish well to the kind kinsman to whom you have been such a devoted nephew! You would prefer to wait thirty years for your heritage — if you should live so long!”
“Victor Carrington,” cried Reginald, passionately, “you are the fiend himself, in disguise! Let me pass. I will not stop to listen to your hateful words.”
“Wait to hear one question, at any rate. Why do you suppose I made you sign that promissory note at a twelvemonth’s date?”
“I don’t know; but you must know, as well as I do, that the note will be waste-paper so long as my uncle lives.”
“I do know that, my dear Reginald; but I got you to date the document as you did, because I have a kind of presentiment that before that date you will be master of Raynham!”
“You mean that my uncle will die within the year?”
“I am subject to presentiments of that kind. I do not think Sir Oswald will see the end of the year!”
“Carrington!” exclaimed Reginald. “Your schemes are hateful. I will have no further dealings with you.”
“Indeed! Then am I to go to Sir Oswald, and tell him the story of last night? Am I to tell him that his wife is innocent?”
“No, no; tell him nothing. Let things stand as they are. The promise of the estate is mine. I have suffered too much from the loss of my position, and I cannot forego my new hopes. But let there be no more guilt — no more plotting. We have succeeded. Let us wait patiently for the end.”
“Yes,” answered the surgeon, coolly, “we will wait for the end; and if the end should come sooner than our most sanguine hopes have led us to expect, we will not quarrel with the handiwork of fate. Now leave me. I see a petticoat yonder amongst the trees. It belongs to some housemaid from the castle, I dare say; and I must see if my eloquence as a wandering merchant cannot win me admission within the walls which I dare not approach as Victor Carrington.”
Reginald opened the gate with his pass-key, and allowed the surgeon to go through into the gardens.
It was dusk when Sir Oswald left the library. He had sent a message to the chief of his guests, excusing himself from attending the dinner~table, on the ground of ill-health. When he knew that all his visitors would be assembled in the dining-room, he left the library, for the first time since he had entered it after breakfast.
He had brooded long and gloomily over his misery, and had come to a determination as to the line of conduct which he should pursue towards his wife. He went now to Lady Eversleigh’s apartments, in order to inform her of his decision; but, to his surprise, he found the rooms empty. His wife’s maid was sitting at needlework by one of the windows of the dressing-room.
“Where is your mistress?” asked Sir Oswald.
“She has gone out, sir. She has left the castle for some little time, I think, sir; for she put on the plainest of her travelling dresses, and she took a small travelling-bag with her. There is a note, sir, on the mantel-piece in the next room. Shall I fetch it?”
“No; I will get it myself. At what time did Lady Eversleigh leave the castle?”
“About two hours ago, sir.”
“Two hours! In time for the afternoon coach to York,” thought Sir Oswald. “Go and inquire if your mistress really left the castle at that time,” he said to the maid.
He went into the boudoir, and took the letter from the mantel-piece. He crushed it into his breast-pocket with the seal unbroken —
“Time enough to discover what new falsehood she has tried to palm upon me,” he thought.
He looked round the empty room — which she was never more to occupy. Her books, her music, were scattered on every side. The sound of her rich voice seemed still to vibrate through the room. And she was gone — for ever! Well, she was a base and guilty creature, and it was better so — infinitely better that her polluting presence should no longer dishonour those ancient chambers, within which generations of proud and pure women had lived and died. But to see the rooms empty, and to know that she was gone, gave him nevertheless a pang.
“What will become of her?” thought Sir Oswald. “She will return to her lover, of course, and he will console her for the sacrifice she has made by her mad folly. Let her prize him while he still lives to console her; for she may not have him long. Why do I think of her? — why do I trouble myself about her? I have my affairs to arrange — a new will to make — before I think of vengeance. And those matters once settled, vengeance shall be my only thought. I have done for ever with love!”
Sir Oswald returned to the library. A lamp burned on the table at which he was accustomed to write. It was a shaded reading-lamp, which made a wide circle of vivid light around the spot where it stood, but left the rest of the room in shadow.
The night was oppressively hot — an August rather than a September night; and, before beginning his work, Sir Oswald flung open one of the broad windows leading out upon the terrace. Then he unlocked a carved oak bureau, and took out a packet of papers. He seated himself at the table, and began to examine these papers.
Among them was the will which he had executed since his marriage. He read this, and then laid it aside. As he did so, a figure approached the wide-open window; an eager face, illuminated by glittering eyes, peered into the room. It was the face of Victor Carrington, hidden beneath the disguise of assumed age, and completely metamorphosed by the dark skin and grizzled beard. Had Sir Oswald looked up and seen that face, he would not have recognized its owner.
After laying aside the document he had read, Sir Oswald began to write. He wrote slowly, meditating upon every word; and after having written for about half an hour, he rose and left the room. The surgeon had never stirred from his post by the window; and as Sir Oswald closed the door behind him, he crept stealthily into the apartment, and to the table where the papers lay. His footstep, light always, made no sound upon the thick velvet pile. He glanced at the contents of the paper, on which the ink was still wet. It was a will, leaving the bulk of Sir Oswald’s fortune to his nephew, Reginald, unconditionally. Victor Carrington did not linger a moment longer than was necessary to convince him of this fact. He hurried back to his post by the window: nor was he an instant too soon. The door opened before he had fairly stepped from the apartment.
Sir Oswald re-entered, followed by two men. One was the butler, the other was the valet, Joseph Millard. The will was executed in the presence of these men, who affixed their signatures to it as witnesses.
“I have no wish to keep the nature of this will a secret from my household,” said Sir Oswald. “It restores my nephew, Mr. Reginald Eversleigh, to his position as heir to this estate. You will henceforth respect him as my successor.”
The two men bowed and retired. Sir Oswald walked towards the window: and Victor Carrington drew back into the shadow cast by a massive abutment of stone-work.
It was not very easy for a man to conceal himself on the terrace in that broad moonlight.
Voices sounded presently, near one of the windows; and a group of ladies and gentlemen emerged from the drawing-room.
“It is the hottest night we have had this summer,” said one of them. “The house is really oppressive.”
Miss Graham had enchanted her viscount once more, and she and that gentleman walked side by side on the terrace.
“They will discover me if they come this way,” muttered Victor, as he shrank back into the shadow. “I have seen all that I want to see for the present, and had better make my escape while I am safe.”
He stole quietly along by the front of the castle, lurking always in the shadow of the masonry, and descended the terrace steps. From thence he went to the court-yard, on which the servants’ hall opened; and in a few minutes he was comfortably seated in that apartment, listening to the gossip of the servants, who could only speak upon the one subject of Lady Eversleigh’s elopement.
The baronet sat with the newly-made will before him, gazing at the open leaves with fixed and dreamy eyes.
Now that the document was signed, a feeling of doubt had taken possession of him. He remembered how deliberately he had pondered over the step before he had disinherited his nephew; and now that work, which had cost him so much pain and thought, had been undone on the impulse of a moment.
“Have I done right, I wonder?” he asked himself.
The papers which had been tied in the packet containing the old will had been scattered on the table when the baronet unfastened the band that secured them. He took one of these documents up in sheer absence of mind, and opened it.
It was the letter written by the wretched girl who drowned herself in the Seine — the letter of Reginald Eversleigh’s victim — the very letter on the evidence of which Sir Oswald had decided that his nephew was no fitting heir to a great fortune.
The baronet’s brow contracted as he read.
“And it is to the man who could abandon a wretched woman to despair and death, that I am about to leave wealth and power,” he exclaimed. “No; the decision which I arrived at in Arlington Street was a just and wise decision. I have been mad to-day — maddened by anger and despair; but it is not too late to repent my folly. The seducer of Mary Goodwin shall never be the master of Raynham Castle.”
Sir Oswald folded the sheet of foolscap on which the will was written, and held it over the flame of the lamp. He carried it over to the fire~place, and threw it blazing on the empty hearth. He watched it thoughtfully until the greater part of the paper was consumed by the flame, and then went back to his seat.
“My nephews, Lionel and Douglas Dale, shall divide the estate between them,” he thought. “I will send for my solicitor to-morrow, and make a new will.”
Victor Carrington sat in the servants’ hall at Raynham until past eleven o’clock. He had made himself quite at home with the domestics in his assumed character. The women were delighted with the showy goods which he carried in his pack, and which he sold them at prices far below those of the best bargains they had ever made before.
At a few minutes after eleven he rose to bid them good night.
“I suppose I shall find the gates open?” he said.
“Yes; the gates of the court-yard are never locked till half-past eleven,” answered a sturdy old coachman.
The pedlar took his leave; but he did not go out by the court-yard. He went straight to the terrace, along which he crept with stealthy footsteps. Many lights twinkled in the upper windows of the terrace front, for at this hour the greater number of Sir Oswald’s guests had retired to their rooms.
The broad window of the library was still open; but a curtain had been drawn before it, on one side of which there remained a crevice. Through this crevice Victor Carrington could watch the interior of the chamber with very little risk of being discovered.
The baronet was still sitting by the writing-table, with the light of the library-lamp shining full upon him. An open letter was in his hand. It was the letter his wife had left for him. It was not like the letter of a guilty woman. It was quiet, subdued; full of sadness and resignation, rather than of passionate despair.
“I know now that I ought never to have married you, Oswald,” wrote Lady Eversleigh. “The sacrifice which you made for my sake was too great a one. No happiness could well come of such an unequal bargain. You gave me everything, and I could give you so little. The cloud upon my past life was black and impenetrable. You took me nameless, friendless, unknown; and I can scarcely wonder if, at the first breath of suspicion, your faith wavered and your love failed. Farewell, dearest and best of men! You never can know how truly I have loved you; how I have reverenced your noble nature. In all that has come to pass between us since the first hour of our miserable estrangement, nothing has grieved me so deeply as to see your generous soul overclouded by suspicions and doubts, as unworthy of you as they are needless and unfounded. Farewell! I go back to the obscurity from whence you took me. You need not fear for my future. The musical education which I owe to your generous help will enable me to live; and I have no wish to live otherwise than humbly. May heaven bless you!”
This was all. There were no complaints, no entreaties. The letter seemed instinct with the dignity of truth.
“And she has gone forth alone, unprotected. She has gone back to her lonely and desolate life,” thought the baronet, inclined, for a moment at least, to believe in his wife’s words.
But in the next instant he remembered the evidence of Lydia Graham — the wild and improbable story by which Honoria had tried to account for her absence.
“No no,” he exclaimed; “it is all treachery from first to last. She is hiding herself somewhere near at hand, no doubt to wait the result of this artful letter. And when she finds that her artifices are thrown away — when she discovers that my heart has been changed to adamant by her infamy — she will go back to her lover, if he still lives to shelter her.”
A hundred conflicting ideas confused Sir Oswald’s brain. But one thought was paramount — and that was the thought of revenge. He resolved to send for his lawyer early the next morning, to make a new will in favour of his sister’s two sons, and then to start in search of the man who had robbed him of his wife’s affection. Reginald would, of course, be able to assist him in finding Victor Carrington.
While Sir Oswald mused thus, the man of whom he was thinking watched him through the narrow space between the curtains.
“Shall it be to-night?” thought Carrington. “It cannot be too soon. He might change his mind about his will at any moment; and if it should happen to-night, people will say the shock of his wife’s flight has killed him.”
Sir Oswald’s folded arms rested on the table; his head sank forward on his arms. The passionate emotions of the day, the previous night of agony, had at last exhausted him. He fell into a doze — a feverish, troubled sleep. Carrington watched him for upwards of a quarter of an hour as he slept thus.
“I think he is safe now — and I may venture,” murmured Victor, at the end of that time.
He crept softly into the room, making a wide circle, and keeping himself completely in the shadow, till he was behind the sleeping baronet. Then he came towards the lamp-lit table.
Amongst the scattered letters and papers, there stood a claret jug, a large carafe of water, and an empty glass. Victor drew close to the table, and listened for some moments to the breathing of the sleeper. Then he took a small bottle from his pocket, and dropped a few globules of some colourless liquid into the empty glass. Having done this, he withdrew from the apartment as silently as he had entered it. Twelve o’clock struck as he was leaving the terrace.
“So,” he muttered, “it is little more than three-quarters of an hour since I left the servants’ hall. It would not be difficult to prove an alibi, with the help of a blundering village innkeeper.”
He did not attempt to leave the castle by the court-yard, which he knew would be locked by this time. He had made himself acquainted with all the ins and outs of the place, and had possessed himself of a key belonging to one of the garden gates. Through this gate he passed out into the park, climbed a low fence, and made his way into Raynham village, where the landlord of the “Hen and Chickens” was just closing his doors.
“I have been told by the castle servants that you can give me a bed,” he said.
The landlord, who was always delighted to oblige his patrons in Sir Oswald’s servants’ hall and stables, declared himself ready to give the traveller the best accommodation his house could afford.
“It’s late, sir,” he said; “but we’ll manage to make things comfortable for you.”
So that night the surgeon slept in the village of Raynham. He, too, was worn out by the fatigue of the past twenty-four hours, and he slept soundly all through the night, and slept as calmly as a child.
It was eight o’clock next morning when he went down the steep, old~fashioned staircase of the inn. He found a strange hubbub and confusion below. Awful tidings had just been brought from the castle. Sir Oswald Eversleigh had been found seated in his library, DEAD, with the lamp still burning near him, in the bright summer morning. One of the grooms had come down to the little inn, and was telling his story to all comers, when the pedlar came into the open space before the bar.
“It was Millard that found him,” the man said. “He was sitting, quite calm-like, with his head lying back upon the cushion of his arm-chair. There were papers and open letters scattered all about; and they sent off immediately for Mr. Dalton, the lawyer, to look to the papers, and seal up the locks of drawers and desks, and so on. Mr. Dalton is busy at it now. Mr. Eversleigh is awfully shocked, he is. I never saw such a white face in all my life as his, when he came out into the hall after hearing the news. It’s a rare fine thing for him, as you may say; for they say Sir Oswald made a new will last night, and left his nephew everything; and Mr. Eversleigh has been a regular wild one, and is deep in debt. But, for all that, I never saw any one so cut up as he was just now.”
“Poor Sir Oswald!” cried the bystanders. “Such a noble gentleman as he was, too. What did he die of Mr. Kimber? — do you know?”
“The doctor says it must have been heart-disease,” answered the groom. “A broken heart, I say; that’s the only disease Sir Oswald had. It’s my lady’s conduct has killed him. She must have been a regular bad one, mustn’t she?”
The story of the elopement had been fully discussed on the previous day at the “Hen and Chickens,” and everywhere else in the village of Raynham. The country gossips shook their heads over Lady Eversleigh’s iniquity, but they said little. This new event was of so appalling a nature, that it silenced even the tongue of gossip for a while.
The pedlar took his breakfast in the little parlour behind the bar, and listened quietly to all that was said by the villagers and the groom.
“And where is my lady?” asked the innkeeper; “she came back yesterday, didn’t she?”
“Yes, and went away again yesterday afternoon,” returned the groom. “She’s got enough to answer for, she has.”
Terrible indeed was the consternation, which reigned that day at Raynham Castle. Already Sir Oswald’s guests had been making hasty arrangements for their departure; and many visitors had departed even before the discovery of that awful event, which came like a thunderclap upon all within the castle.
Few men had ever been better liked by his acquaintances than Sir Oswald Eversleigh.
His generous nature, his honourable character, had won him every man’s respect. His great wealth had been spent lavishly for the benefit of others. His hand had always been open to the poor and necessitous. He had been a kind master, a liberal landlord, an ardent and devoted friend. There is little wonder, therefore, if the news of his sudden death fell like an overwhelming blow on all assembled within the castle, and on many more beyond the castle walls.
The feeling against Honoria Eversleigh was one of unmitigated execration. No words could be too bitter for those who spoke of Sir Oswald’s wife.
It had been thought on the previous evening that she had left the castle for ever, banished by the command of her husband. Nothing, therefore, could have exceeded the surprise which filled every breast when she entered the crowded hall some minutes after the discovery of Sir Oswald’s death.
Her face was whiter than marble, and its awful whiteness was contrasted by the black dress which she wore.
“Is this true?” she cried, in accents of despair. “Is he really dead?”
“Yes, Lady Eversleigh,” answered General Desmond, an Indian officer, and an old friend of the dead man, “Sir Oswald is dead.”
“Let me go to him! I cannot believe it — I cannot — I cannot!” she cried, wildly. “Let me go to him!”
Those assembled round the door of the library looked at her with horror and aversion. To them this semblance of agony seemed only the consummate artifice of an accomplished hypocrite.
“Let me go to him! For pity’s sake, let me see him!” she pleaded, with clasped hands. “I cannot believe that he is dead.”
Reginald Eversleigh was standing by the door of the library, pale as death — more ghastly of aspect than death itself. He had been leaning against the doorway, as if unable to support himself; but, as Honoria approached, he aroused himself from a kind of stupor, and stretched out his arm to bar her entrance to the death-chamber.
“This is no scene for you, Lady Eversleigh,” he said, sternly. “You have no right to enter that chamber. You have no right to be beneath this roof.”
“Who dares to banish me?” she asked, proudly. “And who can deny my right?”
“I can do both, as the nearest relative of your dead husband.”
“And as the friend of Victor Carrington,” answered Honoria, looking fixedly at her accuser. “Oh! it is a marvellous plot, Reginald Eversleigh, and it wanted but this to complete it. My disgrace was the first act in the drama, my husband’s death the second. Your friend’s treachery accomplished one, you have achieved the other. Sir Oswald Eversleigh has been murdered!”
A suppressed cry of horror broke simultaneously from every lip. As the awful word “murder” was repeated, the doctor, who had been until this moment beside the dead man, came to the door, and opened it.
“Who was it spoke of murder?” he asked.
“It was I,” answered Honoria. “I say that my husband’s death is no sudden stroke from the hand of heaven! There is one here who refuses to let me see him, lest I should lay my hand upon his corpse and call down heaven’s vengeance on his assassin!”
“The woman is mad,” faltered Reginald Eversleigh.
“Look at the speaker,” cried Honoria. “I am not mad, Reginald Eversleigh, though, by you and your fellow-plotter, I have been made to suffer that which might have turned a stronger brain than mine. I am not mad. I say that my husband has been murdered; and I ask all present to mark my words. I have no evidence of what I say, except instinct; but I know that it does not deceive me. As for you, Reginald Eversleigh, I refuse to recognize your rights beneath this roof. As the widow of Sir Oswald, I claim the place of mistress in this house, until events show whether I have a right to it or not.”
These were bold words from one who, in the eyes of all present, was a disgraced wife, who had been banished by her husband.
General Desmond was the person who took upon himself to reply. He was the oldest and most important guest now remaining at the castle, and he was a man who had been much respected by Sir Oswald.
“I certainly do not think that any one here can dispute Lady Eversleigh’s rights, until Sir Oswald’s will has been read, and his last wishes made known. Whatever passed between my poor friend and his wife yesterday is known to Lady Eversleigh alone. It is for her to settle matters with her own conscience; and if she chooses to remain beneath this roof, no one here can presume to banish her from it, except in obedience to the dictates of the dead.”
“The wishes of the dead will soon be known,” said Reginald; “and then that guilty woman will no longer dare to pollute this house by her presence.”
“I do not fear, Reginald Eversleigh,” answered Honoria, with sublime calmness. “Let the worst come. I abide the issue of events. I wait to see whether iniquity is to succeed; or whether, at the last moment, the hand of Providence will be outstretched to confound the guilty. My faith is strong in Providence, Mr. Eversleigh. And now stand aside, if you please, and let me look upon the face of my husband.”
This time, Reginald Eversleigh did not venture to dispute the widow’s right to enter the death-chamber. He made way for her to pass him, and she went in and knelt by the side of the dead. Mr. Dalton, the lawyer, was moving softly about the room, putting seals on all the locks, and collecting the papers that had been scattered on the table. The parish doctor, who had been summoned hastily, stood near the corpse. A groom had been despatched to a large town, twenty miles distant, to summon a medical man of some distinction. There were few railroads in those days; no electric telegraph to summon a man from one end of the country to another. But all the most distinguished doctors who ever lived could not have restored Sir Oswald Eversleigh to an hour’s life. All that medical science could do now, was to discover the mode of the baronet’s death.
The crowd left the hall by and by, and the interior of the castle grew more tranquil. All the remaining guests, with the exception of General Desmond, made immediate arrangements for leaving the house of death.
General Desmond declared his intention of remaining until after the funeral.
“I may be of some use in watching the interests of my dear friend,” he said to Reginald Eversleigh. “There is only one person who will feel your uncle’s death more deeply than I shall, and that is poor old Copplestone. He is still in the castle, I suppose?”
“Yes, he is confined to his rooms still by the gout.”
Reginald Eversleigh was by no means pleased by the general’s decision. He would rather have been alone in the castle. It seemed as if his uncle’s old friend was inclined to take the place of master in the household. The young man’s pride revolted against the general’s love of dictation; and his fears — strange and terrible fears — made the presence of the general very painful to him.
Joseph Millard had come to Reginald a little time after the discovery of the baronet’s death, and had told him the contents of the new will.
“Master told us with his own lips that he had left you heir to the estates, sir,” said the valet. “There was no need for it to be kept a secret, he said; and we signed the will as witnesses — Peterson, the butler, and me.”
“And you are sure you have made no mistake, Millard. Sir Oswald — my poor, poor uncle, said that?”
“He said those very words, Mr. Eversleigh; and I hope, sir, now that you are master of Raynham, you won’t forget that I was always anxious for your interests, and gave you valuable information, sir, when I little thought you would ever inherit the estate, sir.”
“Yes, yes — you will not find me ungrateful, Millard,” answered Reginald, impatiently; for in the terrible agitation of his mind, this man’s talk jarred upon him. “I shall reward you liberally for past services, you may depend upon it,” he added.
“Thank you very much, sir,” murmured the valet, about to retire.
“Stay, Millard,” said the young man. “You have been with my uncle twenty years. You must know everything about his health. Did you ever hear that he suffered from heart-disease?”
“No, sir; he never did suffer from anything of the kind. There never was a stronger gentleman than Sir Oswald. In all the years that I have known him, I don’t recollect his having a day’s serious illness. And as to his dying of disease of the heart, I can’t believe it, Mr. Eversleigh.”
“But in heart-complaint death is almost always sudden, and the disease is generally unsuspected until death reveals it.”
“Well, I don’t know, sir. Of course the medical gentlemen understand such things; but I must say that I don’t understand Sir Oswald going off sudden like that.”
“You’d better keep your opinions to yourself down stairs, Millard. If an idea of that kind were to get about in the servants’ hall, it might do mischief.”
“I should be the last to speak, Mr. Eversleigh. You asked me for my opinion, and I gave it you, candid. But as to expressing my sentiments in the servants’ hall, I should as soon think of standing on my head. In the first place, I don’t take my meals in the servants’ hall, but in the steward’s room; and it’s very seldom I hold any communication whatever with under-servants. It don’t do, Mr. Eversleigh — you may think me ‘aughty; but it don’t do. If upper-servants want to be respected by under-servants, they must first respect themselves.”
“Well, well, Millard; I know I can rely upon your discretion. You can leave me now — my mind is quite unhinged by this dreadful event.”
No sooner had the valet departed than Reginald hurried from the castle, and walked across the garden to the gate by which he had encountered Victor Carrington on the previous day. He had no appointment with Victor, and did not even know if he were still in the neighbourhood; but he fancied it was just possible the surgeon might be waiting for him somewhere without the boundary of the garden.
He was not mistaken. A few minutes after passing through the gateway, he saw the figure of the pedlar approaching him under the shade of the spreading beeches.
“I am glad you are here,” said Reginald; “I fancied I might find you somewhere hereabouts.”
“And I have been waiting and watching about here for the last two hours. I dared not trust a messenger, and could only take my chance of seeing you.”
“You have heard of — of —”
“I have heard everything, I believe.”
“What does it mean, Victor? — what does it all mean?”
“It means that you are a wonderfully lucky fellow; and that, instead of waiting thirty years to see your uncle grow a semi-idiotic old dotard, you will step at once into one of the finest estates in England.”
“You knew, then, that the will was made last night?”
“Well, I guessed as much.”
“You have seen Millard?”
“No, I have not seen Millard.”
“How could you know of my uncle’s will, then? It was only executed last night.”
“Never mind how I know it, my dear Reginald. I do know it. Let that be enough for you.”
“It is too terrible,” murmured the young man, after a pause; “it is too terrible.”
“What is too terrible?”
“This sudden death.”
“Is it?” cried Victor Carrington, looking full in his companion’s face, with an expression of supreme scorn. “Would you rather have waited thirty years for these estates? Would you rather have waited twenty years? — ten years? No, Reginald Eversleigh, you would not. I know you better than you know yourself, and I will answer for you in this matter. If your uncle’s life had lain in your open palm last night, and the closing of your hand would have ended it, your hand would have closed, Mr. Eversleigh, affectionate nephew though you be. You are a hypocrite, Reginald. You palter with your own conscience. Better to be like me and have no conscience, than to have one and palter with it as you do.”
Reginald made no reply to this disdainful speech. His own weakness of character placed him entirely in the power of his friend. The two men walked on together in silence.
“You do not know all that has occurred since last night at the castle,” said Reginald, at last; “Lady Eversleigh has reappeared.”
“Lady Eversleigh! I thought she left Raynham yesterday afternoon.”
“So it was generally supposed; but this morning she came into the hall, and demanded to be admitted to see her dead husband. Nor was this all. She publicly declared that he had been murdered, and accused me of the crime. This is terrible, Victor.”
“It is terrible, and it must be put an end to at once.”
“But how is it to be put an end to?” asked Reginald. “If this woman repeats her accusations, who is to seal her lips?”
“The tables must be turned upon her. If she again accuses you, you must accuse her. If Sir Oswald were indeed murdered, who so likely to have committed the murder as this woman — whose hatred and revenge were, no doubt, excited by her husband’s refusal to receive her back, after her disgraceful flight? This is what you have to say; and as every one’s opinion is against Lady Eversleigh, she will find herself in rather an unpleasant position, and will be glad to hold her peace for the future upon the subject of Sir Oswald’s death.”
“You do not doubt my uncle died a natural death, do you, Victor?” asked Reginald, with a strange eagerness. “You do not think that he was murdered?”
“No, indeed. Why should I think so?” returned the surgeon, with perfect calmness of manner. “No one in the castle, but you and Lady Eversleigh, had any interest in his life or death. If he came to his end by any foul means, she must be the guilty person, and on her the deed must be fixed. You must hold firm, Reginald, remember.”
The two men parted soon after this; but not before they had appointed to meet on the following day, at the same hour, and on the same spot. Reginald Eversleigh returned to the castle, gloomy and ill at ease, and on entering the house he discovered that the doctor from Plimborough had arrived during his absence, and was to remain until the following day, when his evidence would be required at the inquest.
It was Joseph Millard who told him this.
“The inquest! What inquest?” asked Reginald.
“The coroner’s inquest, sir. It is to be held to-morrow in the great dining-room. Sir Oswald died so suddenly, you see, sir, that it’s only natural there should be an inquest. I’m sorry to say there’s a talk about his having committed suicide, poor gentleman!”
“Suicide — yes — yes — that is possible; he may have committed suicide,” murmured Reginald.
“It’s very dreadful, isn’t it, sir? The two doctors and Mr. Dalton, the lawyer, are together in the library. The body has been moved into the state bed-room.”
The lawyer emerged from the library at this moment, and approached Reginald.
“Can I speak with you for a few minutes, Mr. Eversleigh?” he asked.
He went into the library, where he found the two doctors, and another person, whom he had not expected to see.
This was a country gentleman — a wealthy landed squire and magistrate — whom Reginald Eversleigh had known from his boyhood. His name was Gilbert Ashburne; and he was an individual of considerable importance in the neighbourhood of Raynham, near which village he had a fine estate.
Mr. Ashburne was standing with his back to the empty fireplace, in conversation with one of the medical men, when Reginald entered the room. He advanced a few paces, to shake hands with the young man, and then resumed his favourite magisterial attitude, leaning against the chimney-piece, with his hands in his trousers’ pockets.
“My dear Eversleigh,” he said, “this is a very terrible affair — very terrible!”
“Yes, Mr. Ashburne, my uncle’s sudden death is indeed terrible.”
“But the manner of his death! It is not the suddenness only, but the nature —”
“You forget, Mr. Ashburne,” interposed one of the medical men, “Mr. Eversleigh knows nothing of the facts which I have stated to you.”
“Ah, he does not! I was not aware of that. You have no suspicion of any foul play in this sad business, eh, Mr. Eversleigh?” asked the magistrate.
“No,” answered Reginald. “There is only one person I could possibly suspect; and that person has herself given utterance to suspicions that sound like the ravings of madness.”
“You mean Lady Eversleigh?” said the Raynham doctor.
“Pardon me,” said Mr. Ashburne; “but this business is altogether so painful that it obliges me to touch upon painful subjects. Is there any truth in the report which I have heard of Lady Eversleigh’s flight on the evening of some rustic gathering?”
“Unhappily, the report has only too good a foundation. My uncle’s wife did take flight with a lover on the night before last; but she returned yesterday, and had an interview with her husband. What took place at that interview I cannot tell you; but I imagine that my uncle forbade her to remain beneath his roof. Immediately after she had left him, he sent for me, and announced his determination to reinstate me in my old position as his heir. He would not, I am sure, have done this, had he believed his wife innocent.”
“And she left the castle at his bidding?”
“It was supposed that she left the castle; but this morning she reappeared, and claimed the right to remain beneath this roof.”
“And where had she passed the night?”
“Not in her own apartments. Of that I have been informed by her maid, who believed that she had left Raynham for good.”
“Strange!” exclaimed the magistrate. “If she is guilty, why does she remain here, where her guilt is known — where she maybe suspected of a crime, and the most terrible of crimes?”
“Of what crime?”
“Of murder, Mr. Eversleigh. I regret to tell you that these two medical gentlemen concur in the opinion that your uncle’s death was caused by poison. A post-mortem examination will be made to-night.”
“Upon what evidence?”
“On the evidence of an empty glass, which is under lock and key in yonder cabinet,” answered the doctor from Plimborough; “and at the bottom of which I found traces of one of the most powerful poisons known to those who are skilled in the science of toxicology: and on the further evidence of diagnostics which I need not explain — the evidence of the dead man’s appearance, Mr. Eversleigh. That your uncle died from the effects of poison, there cannot be the smallest doubt. The next question to be considered is, whether that poison was administered by his own hand, or the hand of an assassin.”
“He may have committed suicide,” said Reginald, with some hesitation.
“It is just possible,” answered Gilbert Ashburne; “though from my knowledge of your uncle’s character, I should imagine it most unlikely. At any rate, his papers will reveal the state of his mind immediately before his death. It is my suggestion, therefore, that his papers should be examined immediately by you, as his nearest relative and acknowledged heir — by me, as magistrate of the district, and in the presence of Mr. Dalton, who was your uncle’s confidential solicitor. Have you any objection to offer to this course, Mr. Eversleigh, or Sir Reginald, as I suppose I ought now to call you?” It was the first time Reginald Eversleigh had heard himself addressed by the title which was now his own — that title which, borne by the possessor of a great fortune, bestows so much dignity; but which, when held by a poor man, is so hollow a mockery. In spite of his fears — in spite of that sense of remorse which had come upon him since his uncle’s death — the sound of the title was pleasant to his ears, and he stood for the moment silent, overpowered by the selfish rapture of gratified pride.
The magistrate repeated his question.
“Have you any objection to offer, Sir Reginald?”
“None whatever, Mr. Ashburne.”
Reginald Eversleigh was only too glad to accede to the magistrate’s proposition. He was feverishly anxious to see the will which was to make him master of Raynham. He knew that such a will had been duly executed. He had no reason to fear that it had been destroyed; but still he wanted to see it — to hold it in his hands, to have incontestable proof of its existence.
The examination of the papers was serious work. The lawyer suggested that the first to be scrutinized should be those that he had found on the table at which Sir Oswald had been writing.
The first of these papers which came into the magistrate’s hand was Mary Goodwin’s letter. Reginald Eversleigh recognized the familiar handwriting, the faded ink, and crumpled paper. He stretched out his hand at the moment Gilbert Ashburne was about to examine the document.
“That is a letter,” he said, “a strictly private letter, which I recognize. It is addressed to me, as you will see; and posted in Paris nearly two years ago. I must beg you not to read it.”
“Very well, Sir Reginald, I will take your word for it. The letter has nothing to do with the subject of our present inquiry. Certainly, a letter, posted in Paris two years ago, can scarcely have any connection with the state of your uncle’s mind last night.”
The magistrate little thought how very important an influence that crumpled sheet of paper had exercised upon the events of the previous night.
Gilbert Ashburne and the lawyer examined the rest of the packet. There were no papers of importance; nothing throwing any light upon late events, except Lady Eversleigh’s letter, and the will made by the baronet immediately after his marriage.
“There is another and a later will,” said Reginald, eagerly; “a will made last night, and witnessed by Millard and Peterson. This earlier will ought to have been destroyed.”
“It is not of the least consequence, Sir Reginald,” replied the solicitor. “The will of latest date is the true one, if there should be a dozen in existence.”
“We had better search for the will made last night,” said Reginald, anxiously.
The magistrate and the lawyer complied. They perceived the anxiety of the expectant heir, and gave way to it. The search occupied a long time, but no second will was found; the only will that could be discovered was that made within a week of the baronet’s marriage.
“The will attested last night must be in this room,” exclaimed Reginald. “I will send for Millard; and you shall hear from his lips an exact account of what occurred.”
The young man tried in vain to conceal the feeling of alarm which had taken possession of him. What would be his position if this will should not be found? A beggar, steeped in crime.
He rang the bell and sent for the valet. Joseph Millard came, and repeated his account of the previous night’s transaction. It was clear that the will had been made. It was equally clear that if it were still in existence, it must be found in that room, for the valet declared that his master had not left the library after the execution of the document.
“I was on the watch and on the listen all night, you see, gentlemen,” said Joseph Millard; “for I was very uneasy about master, knowing what trouble had come upon him, and how he’d never been to bed all the night before. I thought he might call me at any minute, so I kept close at hand. There’s a little room next to this, and I sat in there with the door open, and though I dropped off into a doze now and then, I never was sound enough asleep not to have heard this door open, if it did open. But I’ll take my Bible oath that Sir Oswald never left this room after me and Peterson witnessed the will.”
“Then the will must be somewhere in the room, and it will be our business to find it,” answered Mr. Ashburne. “That will do, Millard; you can go.”
The valet retired.
Reginald recommenced the search for the will, assisted by the magistrate and the lawyer, while the two doctors stood by the fire~place, talking together in suppressed tones.
This time the search left no crevice unexamined. But all was done without avail; and despair began to gain upon Reginald Eversleigh.
What if all the crime, the falsehood, the infamy of the past few days had been committed for no result?
He was turning over the papers in the bureau for the third or fourth time, with trembling hands, in the desperate hope that somehow or other the missing will might have escaped former investigations, when he was arrested by a sudden exclamation from Mr. Missenden, the Plimborough surgeon.
“I don’t think you need look any farther, Sir Reginald,” said this gentleman.
“What do you mean?” cried Reginald, eagerly.
“I believe the will is found.”
“Thank Heaven!” exclaimed the young man.
“You mistake, Sir Reginald,” said Mr. Missenden, who was kneeling by the fire-place, looking intently at some object in the polished steel fender; “if I am right, and that this really is the document in question, I fear it will be of very little use to you.”
“It has been destroyed!” gasped Reginald.
“I fear so. This looks to me like the fragment of a will.”
He handed Reginald a scrap of paper, which he had found amongst a heap of grey ashes. It was scorched to a deep yellow colour, and burnt at the edges; but the few words written upon it were perfectly legible, nevertheless.
These words were the following:—
“—Nephew, Reginald Eversleigh — Raynham Castle estate — all lands and tenements appertaining — sole use and benefit—”
This was all. Reginald gazed at the scrap of scorched paper with wild, dilated eyes. All hope was gone; there could be little doubt that this morsel of paper was all that remained of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s latest will.
And the will made previously bequeathed Raynham to the testator’s window, a handsome fortune to each of the two Dales, and a pittance of five hundred a-year to Reginald.
The young man sank into a chair, stricken down by this overwhelming blow. His white face was the very picture of despair.
“My uncle never destroyed this document,” he exclaimed; “I will not believe it. Some treacherous hand has been thrust between me and my rights. Why should Sir Oswald have made a will in one hour and destroyed it in the next? What could have influenced him to alter his mind?”
As he uttered these words, Reginald Eversleigh remembered that fatal letter of Mary Goodwin, which had been found lying uppermost amongst the late baronet’s papers. That letter had caused Sir Oswald to disinherit his nephew once. Was it possible that the same letter had influenced him a second time?
But the disappointed man did not suffer himself to dwell long on this subject. He thought of his uncle’s widow, and the triumph that she had won over the schemers who had plotted so basely to achieve her destruction. A savage fury filled his soul as he thought of Honoria.
“This will has been destroyed by the one person most interested in its destruction,” he cried. “Who can doubt now that my uncle was poisoned, and the will destroyed by the same person? — and who can doubt that person to be Lady Eversleigh?”
“My dear sir,” exclaimed Mr. Ashburne, “this really will not do. I cannot listen to such accusations, unsupported by any evidence.”
“What evidence do you need, except the evidence of truth?” cried Reginald, passionately. “Who else was interested in the destruction of that paper? — who else was likely to desire my uncle’s death? Who but his false and guilty wife? She had been banished from beneath this roof; she was supposed to have left the castle; but instead of going away, she remained in hiding, waiting her chances. If there has been a murder committed, who can doubt that she is the murderess? Who can question that it was she who burnt the will which robbed her of wealth and station, and branded her with disgrace?”
“You are too impetuous, Sir Reginald,” returned the magistrate. “I will own there are grounds for suspicion in the circumstances of which you speak; but in such a terrible affair as this there must be no jumping at conclusions. However, the death of your uncle by poison immediately after the renunciation of his wife, and the burning of the will which transferred the estates from her to you, are, when considered in conjunction, so very mysterious — not to say suspicious — that I shall consider myself justified in issuing a warrant for the detention of Lady Eversleigh, upon suspicion of being concerned in the death of her husband. I shall hold an inquiry here to-morrow, immediately after the coroner’s inquest, and shall endeavour to sift matters most thoroughly. If Lady Eversleigh is innocent, her temporary arrest can do her no harm. She will not be called upon to leave her own apartments; and very few outside the castle, or, indeed, within it, need be aware of her arrest. I think I will wait upon her myself, and explain the painful necessity.”
“Yes, and be duped by her plausible tongue,” cried Reginald bitterly.” She completely bewitched my poor uncle. Do you know that he picked her up out of the gutter, and knew no more of her past life than he knew of the inhabitants of the other planets? If you see her, she will fool you as she fooled him.”
“I am not afraid of her witcheries,” answered the magistrate, with dignity. “I shall do my duty, Sir Reginald, you may depend upon it.”
Reginald Eversleigh said no more. He left the library without uttering a word to any of the gentlemen. The despair which had seized upon him was too terrible for words. Alone, locked in his own room, he gnashed his teeth in agony.
“Fools! dolts! idiots that we have been, with all our deeply-laid plots and subtle scheming,” he cried, as he paced up and down the room in a paroxysm of mad rage, “She triumphs in spite of us — she can laugh us to scorn! And Victor Carrington, the man whose intellect was to conquer impossibilities, what a shallow fool he has shown himself, after all! I thought there was something superhuman in his success, so strangely did fate seem to favour his scheming; and now, at the last — when the cup was at my lips — it is snatched away, and dashed to the ground!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05