While the new baronet abandoned himself to the anguish of disappointed avarice and ambition, Honoria sat quietly in her own apartments, brooding very sadly over her husband’s death.
She had loved him honestly and truly. No younger lover had ever won possession of her heart. Her life, before her meeting with Sir Oswald, had been too miserable for the indulgence of the romantic dreams or poetic fancies of girlhood. The youthful feelings of this woman, who called herself Honoria, had been withered by the blasting influence of crime. It was only when gratitude for Sir Oswald’s goodness melted the ice of that proud nature — it was then only that Honoria’s womanly tenderness awoke — it was then only that affection — a deep-felt and pure affection — for the first time occupied her heart.
That affection was all the more intense in its nature because it was the first love of a noble heart. Honoria had reverenced in her husband all that she had ever known of manly virtue.
And he was lost to her! He had died believing her false.
“I could have borne anything but that,” she thought, in her desolation.
The magistrate came to her, and explained the painful necessity under which he found himself placed. But he did not tell her of the destruction of the will, nor yet that the medical men had pronounced decisively as to Sir Oswald’s death. He only told her that there were suspicious circumstances connected with that death; and that it was considered necessary there should he a careful investigation of those circumstances.
“The investigation cannot be too complete,” replied Honoria, eagerly. “I know that there has been foul play, and that the best and noblest of men has fallen a victim to the hand of an assassin. Oh, sir, if you are able to distinguish truth from falsehood, I implore you to listen to the story which my poor husband refused to believe — the story of the basest treachery that was ever plotted against a helpless woman!”
Mr. Ashburne declared himself willing to hear any statement Lady Eversleigh might wish to make; but he warned her that it was just possible that statement might be used against her hereafter.
Honoria told him the circumstances which she had related to Sir Oswald; the false alarm about her husband, the drive to Yarborough Tower, and the night of agony spent within the ruins; but, to her horror, she perceived that this man also disbelieved her. The story seemed wild and improbable, and people had already condemned her. They were prepared to hear a fabrication from her lips; and the truth which she had to tell seemed the most clumsy and shallow of inventions.
Gilbert Ashburne did not tell her that he doubted her; but, polite as his words were, she could read the indications of distrust in his face. She could see that he thought worse of her after having heard the statement which was her sole justification.
“And where is this Mr. Carrington now to be found?” he asked, presently. “I do not know. Having accomplished his base plot, and caused his friend’s restoration to the estates, I suppose he has taken care to go far away from the scene of his infamy.”
The magistrate looked searchingly at her face. Was this acting, or was she ignorant of the destruction of the will? Did she, indeed, believe that the estates were lost to herself?
Before the hour at which the coroner’s inquest was to be held in the great dining-room, Reginald Eversleigh and Victor Carrington met at the appointed spot in the avenue of firs.
One glance at his friend’s face informed Victor that some fatal event had occurred since the previous day. Reginald told him, in brief, passionate words, of the destruction of the will.
“You are a clever schemer, no doubt, Mr. Carrington,” he added, bitterly; “but clever as you are, you have been outwitted as completely as the veriest fool that ever blundered into ruin. Do you understand, Carrington — we are not richer by one halfpenny for all your scheming?”
Carrington was silent for awhile; but when, after a considerable pause, he at length spoke, his voice betrayed a despair as intense in its quiet depth as the louder passion of his companion.
“I cannot believe it,” he exclaimed, in a hoarse whisper. “I tell you, man, you must, have made some senseless mistake. The will cannot have been destroyed.”
“I had the fragments in my hand,” answered Reginald. “I saw my name written on the worthless scrap of burnt paper. All that was left besides that wretched fragment were the ashes in the grate.”
“I saw the will executed — I saw it — within a few hours of Sir Oswald’s death.”
“You saw it done?”
“Yes, I was outside the window of the library.”
“And you —! oh, it is too horrible,” cried Reginald.
“What is too horrible?”
“The deed that was done that night.”
“That deed is no business of ours,” answered Victor; “the person who destroyed the will was your uncle’s assassin, if he died by the hand of an assassin.”
“Do you really believe that, Carrington; or are you only fooling me?”
“What else should I believe?”
The two men parted. Reginald Eversleigh knew that his presence would be required at the coroner’s inquest. The surgeon did not attempt to detain him.
For the time, at least, this arch-plotter found himself suddenly brought to a stand-still.
The inquest commenced almost immediately after Reginald’s return to the castle.
The first witness examined was the valet, who had been the person to discover the death; the next were the two medical men, whose evidence was of a most important nature.
It was a closed court, and no one was admitted who was not required to give evidence. Lady Eversleigh sat at the opposite end of the table to that occupied by the coroner. She had declined to avail herself of the services of any legal adviser. She had declared her determination to trust in her own innocence, and in that alone. Proud, calm, and self~possessed, she confronted the solemn assembly, and did not shrink from the scrutinizing looks that met her eyes in every direction.
Reginald Eversleigh contemplated her with a feeling of murderous hatred, as he took his place at some little distance from her seat.
The evidence of Mr. Missenden was to the effect that Sir Oswald Eversleigh had died from the effects of a subtle and little-known poison. He had discovered traces of this poison in the empty glass which had been found upon the table beside the dead man, and he had discovered further traces of the same poison in the stomach of the deceased.
After the medical witnesses had both been examined, Peterson, the butler, was sworn. He related the facts connected with the execution of the will, and further stated that it was he who had carried the carafe of water, claret-jug, and the empty glass to Sir Oswald.
“Did you fetch the water yourself?” asked the coroner.
“Yes, your worship — Sir Oswald was very particular about the water being iced — I took it from a filter in my own charge.”
“And the glass?”
“I took the glass from my own pantry.”
“Are you sure that there was nothing in the glass when you took the salver to you master?”
“Quite sure, sir. I’m very particular about having all my glass bright and clear — it’s the under butler’s duty to see to that, and it’s my duty to keep him up to his work. I should have seen in a moment if the glass had been dull and smudgy at the bottom.”
The water remaining in the carafe had been examined by the medical witnesses, and had been declared by them to be perfectly pure. The claret had been untouched. The poison could, therefore, have only been introduced to the baronet’s room in the glass; and the butler protested that no one but himself and his assistant had access to the place in which the glass had been kept.
How, then, could the baronet have been poisoned, except by his own hand?
Reginald Eversleigh was one of the last witnesses examined. He told of the interview between himself and his uncle, on the day preceding Sir Oswald’s death. He told of Lydia Graham’s revelations — he told everything calculated to bring disgrace upon the woman who sat, pale and silent, confronting her fate.
She seemed unmoved by these scandalous revelations. She had passed through such bitter agony within the last few days and nights, that it seemed to her as if nothing could have power to move her more.
She had endured the shame of her husband’s distrust. The man she loved so dearly had cast her from him with disdain and aversion. What new agony could await her equal to that through which she had passed.
Reginald Eversleigh’s hatred and rage betrayed him into passing the limits of prudence. He told the story of the destroyed will, and boldly accused Lady Eversleigh of having destroyed it.
“You forget yourself, Sir Reginald,” said the coroner; “you are here as a witness, and not as an accuser.”
“But am I to keep silence, when I know that yonder woman is guilty of a crime by which I am robbed of my heritage?” cried the young man, passionately. “Who but she was interested in the destruction of that will? Who had so strong a motive for wishing my uncle’s death? Why was she hiding in the castle after her pretended departure, except for some guilty purpose? She left her own apartments before dusk, after writing a farewell letter to her husband. Where was she, and what was she doing, after leaving those apartments?”
“Let me answer those questions, Sir Reginald Eversleigh,” said a voice from the doorway.
The young baronet turned and recognized the speaker. It was his uncle’s old friend, Captain Copplestone, who had made his way into the room unheard while Reginald had been giving his evidence. He was still seated in his invalid-chair — still unable to move without its aid.
“Let me answer those questions,” he repeated. “I have only just heard of Lady Eversleigh’s painful position. I beg to be sworn immediately, for my evidence may be of some importance to that lady.”
Reginald sat down, unable to contest the captain’s right to be heard, though he would fain have done so.
Lady Eversleigh for the first time that day gave evidence of some slight emotion. She raised her eyes to Captain Copplestone’s bronzed face with a tearful glance, expressive of gratitude and confidence.
The captain was duly sworn, and then proceeded to give his evidence, in brief, abrupt sentences, without waiting to be questioned.
“You ask where Lady Eversleigh spent the night of her husband’s death, and how she spent it. I can answer both those questions. She spent that night in my room, nursing a sick old man, who was mad with the tortures of rheumatic gout, and weeping over Sir Oswald’s refusal to believe in her innocence.
“You’ll ask, perhaps, how she came to be in my apartments on that night. I’ll answer you in a few words. Before leaving the castle she came to my room, and asked my old servant to admit her. She had been very kind and attentive to me throughout my illness. My servant is a gruff and tough old fellow, but he is grateful for any kindness that’s shown to his master. He admitted Lady Eversleigh to see me, ill as I was. She told me the whole story which she told her husband. ‘He refused to believe me, Captain Copplestone,’ she said; ‘he who once loved me so dearly refused to believe me. So I come to you, his best and oldest friend, in the hope that you may think better of me; and that some day, when I am far away, and time has softened my husband’s heart towards me, you may speak a good word in my behalf.’ And I did believe her. Yes, Mr. Eversleigh — or Sir Reginald Eversleigh — I did, and I do, believe that lady.”
“Captain Copplestone,” said the coroner; “we really do not require all these particulars; the question is — when did Lady Eversleigh enter your rooms, and when did she quit them?”
“She came to me at dusk, and she did not leave my rooms until the next morning, after the discovery of my poor friend’s death. When she had told me her story, and her intention of leaving the castle immediately, I begged her to remain until the next day. She would be safe in my rooms, I told her. No one but myself and my old servant would know that she had not really left the castle; and the next day, when Sir Oswald’s passion had been calmed by reflection, I should be able, perhaps, to intercede successfully for the wife whose innocence I most implicitly believed, in spite of all the circumstances that had conspired to condemn her. Lady Eversleigh knew my influence over her husband; and, after some persuasion, consented to take my advice. My diabolical gout happened to be a good deal worse than usual that night, and my friend’s wife assisted my servant to nurse me, with the patience of an angel, or a sister of charity. From the beginning to the end of that fatal night she never left my apartments. She entered my room before the will could have been executed, and she did not leave it until after her husband’s death.”
“Your evidence is conclusive, Captain Copplestone, and it exonerates her ladyship from all suspicion,” said the coroner.
“My evidence can be confirmed in every particular by my old servant, Solomon Grundy,” said the captain, “if it requires confirmation.”
“It requires none, Captain Copplestone.”
Reginald Eversleigh gnawed his bearded lip savagely. This man’s evidence proved that Lady Eversleigh had not destroyed the will. Sir Oswald himself, therefore, must have burned the precious document. And for what reason?
A horrible conviction now took possession of the young baronet’s mind. He believed that Mary Goodwin’s letter had been for the second time instrumental in the destruction of his prospects. A fatal accident had thrown it in his uncle’s way after the execution of the will, and the sight of that letter had recalled to Sir Oswald the stern resolution at which he had arrived in Arlington Street.
Utter ruin stared Reginald Eversleigh in the face. The possessor of an empty title, and of an income which, to a man of his expensive habits, was the merest pittance, he saw before him a life of unmitigated wretchedness. But he did not execrate his own sins and vices for the misery which they had brought upon him. He cursed the failure of Victor Carrington’s schemes, and thought of himself as the victim of Victor Carrington’s blundering.
The verdict of the coroner’s jury was an open one, to the effect that “Sir Oswald Eversleigh died by poison, but by whom administered there was no evidence to show.”
The general opinion of those who had listened to the evidence was that the baronet had committed suicide. Public opinion around and about Raynham was terribly against his widow. Sir Oswald had been universally esteemed and respected, and his melancholy end was looked on as her work. She had been acquitted of any positive hand is his death; but she was not acquitted of the guilt of having broken his heart by her falsehood.
Her obscure origin, her utter friendlessness, influenced people against her. What must be the past life of this woman, who, in the hour of her widowhood, had not one friend to come forward to support and protect her?
The world always chooses to see the darker side of the picture. Nobody for a moment imagined that Honoria Eversleigh might possibly be the innocent victim of the villany of others.
The funeral of Sir Oswald Eversleigh was conducted with all the pomp and splendour befitting the burial of a man whose race had held the land for centuries, with untarnished fame and honour. The day of the funeral was dark, cold, and gloomy; stormy winds howled and shrieked among the oaks and beeches of Raynham Park. The tall firs in the avenue were tossed to and fro in the blast, like the funereal plumes of that stately hearse which was to issue at noon from the quadrangle of the castle.
It was difficult to believe that less than a fortnight had elapsed since that bright and balmy day on which the picnic had been held at the Wizard’s Cave.
Lady Eversleigh had declared her intention of following her husband to his last resting-place. She had been told that it was unusual for women of the higher classes to take part in a funeral cortège; but she had stedfastly adhered to her resolution.
“You tell me it is not the fashion!” she said to Mr. Ashburne. “I do not care for fashion, I would offer the last mark of respect and affection to the husband who was my dearest and truest friend upon this earth, and without whom the earth is very desolate for me. If the dead pass at once into those heavenly regions were Divine Wisdom reigns supreme over all mortal weakness, the emancipated spirit of him who goes to his tomb this day knows that my love, my faith, never faltered. If I had wronged him as the world believes, Mr. Ashburne, I must, indeed, be the most hardened of wretches to insult the dead by my presence. Accept my determination as a proof of my innocence, if you can.”
“The question of your guilt or innocence is a dark enigma which I cannot take upon myself to solve, Lady Eversleigh,” answered Gilbert Ashburne, gravely. “It would be an unspeakable relief to my mind if I could think you innocent. Unhappily, circumstances combine to condemn you in such a manner that even Christian charity can scarcely admit the possibility of your innocence.”
“Yes,” murmured the widow, sadly, “I am the victim of a plot so skilfully devised, so subtly woven, that I can scarcely wonder if the world refuses to believe me guiltless. And yet you see that honourable soldier, that brave and true-hearted gentleman, Captain Copplestone, does not think me the wretch I seem to be.
“Captain Copplestone is a man who allows himself to be guided by his instincts and impulses, and who takes a pride in differing from his fellow-men. I am a man of the world, and I am unable to form any judgment which is not justified by facts. If facts combine to condemn you, Lady Eversleigh, you must not think me harsh or cruel if I cannot bring myself to acquit you.”
During the preceding conversation Honoria Eversleigh had revealed the most gentle, the most womanly side of her character. There had been a pleading tone in her voice, an appealing softness in her glances. But now the expression of her face changed all at once; the beautiful countenance grew cold and stern, the haughty lip quivered with the agony of offended pride.
“Enough!” she said. “I will never again trouble you, Mr. Ashburne, by entreating your merciful consideration. Let your judgment be the judgment of the world. I am content to await the hour of my justification; I am content to trust in Time, the avenger of all wrongs, and the consoler of all sorrows. In the meanwhile, I will stand alone — a woman without a friend, a woman who has to fight her own battles with the world.”
Gilbert Ashburne could not withhold his respect from the woman who stood before him, queen-like in her calm dignity.
“She may be the basest and vilest of her sex,” he thought to himself, as he left her presence; “but she is a woman whom it is impossible to despise.”
The funeral procession was to leave Raynham at noon. At eleven o’clock the arrival of Mr. Dale and Mr. Douglas Dale was announced. These two gentlemen had just arrived at the castle, and the elder of the two requested the favour of an interview with his uncle’s widow.
She was seated in one of the apartments which had been allotted to her especial use when she arrived, a proud and happy bride, from her brief honeymoon tour. It was the spacious morning-room which had been sacred to the late Lady Eversleigh, Sir Oswald’s mother.
Here the widow sat in the hour of her desolation, unhonoured, unloved, without friend or counsellor; unless, indeed, the gallant soldier who had defended her from the suspicion of a hideous crime might stoop to befriend her further in her bitter need. She sat alone, uncertain, after the reading of the dead man’s will, whether she might not be thrust forth from the doors of Raynham Castle, shelterless, homeless, penniless, once more a beggar and an outcast.
Her heart was so cruelly stricken by the crushing blow that had fallen upon her; the grief she felt for her husband’s untimely fate was so deep and sincere, that she thought but little of her own future. She had ceased to feel either hope or fear. Let fate do its worst. No sorrow that could come to her in the future, no disgrace, no humiliation, could equal in bitterness that fiery ordeal through which she had passed during the last few days.
Lionel Dale was ushered into the morning-room while Lady Eversleigh sat by the hearth, absorbed in gloomy thought.
She rose as Lionel Dale entered the room, and received him with stately courtesy.
She was prepared to find herself despised by this young man, who would, in all probability, very speedily learn, or who had perhaps already learned, the story of her degradation.
She was prepared to find herself misjudged by him. But he was the nephew of the man who had once so devotedly loved her; the husband whose memory was hallowed for her; and she was determined to receive him with all respect, for the sake of the beloved and honoured dead.
“You are doubtless surprised to see me here, madam,” said Mr. Dale, in a tone whose chilling accent told Honoria that this stranger was already prejudiced against her. “I have received no invitation to take part in the sad ceremonial of to-day, either from you or from Sir Reginald Eversleigh. But I loved Sir Oswald very dearly, and I am here to pay the last poor tribute of respect to that honoured and generous friend.”
“Permit me thank you for that tribute,” answered Lady Eversleigh. “If I did not invite you and your brother to attend the funeral, it was from no wish to exclude you. My desires have been in no manner consulted with regard to the arrangements of to-day. Very bitter misery has fallen upon me within the last fortnight — heaven alone knows how undeserved that misery has been — and I know not whether this roof will shelter me after to-day.”
She looked at the stranger very earnestly as she said this. It was bitter to stand quite alone in the world; to know herself utterly fallen in the estimation of all around her; and she looked at Lionel Dale with a faint hope that she might discover some touch of compassion, some shadow of doubt in his countenance.
Alas, no — there was none. It was a frank, handsome face — a face that was no polished mask beneath which the real man concealed himself. It was a true and noble countenance, easy to read as an open book. Honoria looked at it with despair in her heart, for she perceived but too plainly that this man also despised her. She understood at once that he had been told the story of his uncle’s death, and regarded her as the indirect cause of that fatal event.
And she was right. He had arrived at the chief inn in Raynham two hours before, and there he had heard the story of Lady Eversleigh’s flight and Sir Oswald’s sudden death, with some details of the inquest. Slow to believe evil, he had questioned Gilbert Ashburne, before accepting the terrible story as he had heard it from the landlord of the inn. Mr. Ashburne only confirmed that story, and admitted that, in his opinion, the flight and disgrace of the wife had been the sole cause of the death of the husband.
Once having heard this, and from the lips of a man whom he knew to be the soul of truth and honour, Lionel Dale had but one feeling for his uncle’s widow, and that feeling was abhorrence.
He saw her in her beauty and her desolation; but he had no pity for her miserable position, and her beauty inspired him only with loathing; for had not that beauty been the first cause of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s melancholy fate?
“I wished to see you, madam,” said Lionel Dale, after that silence which seemed so long, “in order to apologize for a visit which might appear an intrusion. Having done so, I need trouble you no further.”
He bowed with chilling courtesy, and left the room. He had uttered no word of consolation, no assurance of sympathy, to that pale widow of a week; nothing could have been more marked than the omission of those customary phrases, and Honoria keenly felt their absence.
The dead leaves strewed the avenue along which Sir Oswald Eversleigh went to his last resting-place; the dead leaves fluttered slowly downward from the giant oaks — the noble old beeches; there was not one gleam of sunshine on the landscape, not one break in the leaden grey of the sky. It seemed as if the funeral of departed summer was being celebrated on this first dreary autumn day.
Lady Eversleigh occupied the second carriage in the stately procession. She was alone. Captain Copplestone was confined to his room by the gout. She went alone — tearless — in outward aspect calm as a statue; but the face of the corpse hidden in the coffin could scarcely have been whiter than hers.
As the procession passed out of the gates of Raynham, a tramp who stood among the rest of the crowd, was strangely startled by the sight of that beautiful face, so lovely even in its marble whiteness.
“Who is that woman sitting in yonder carriage?” he asked.
He was a rough, bare-footed vagabond, with a dark evil-looking countenance, which he did well to keep shrouded by the broad brim of his battered hat. He looked more like a smuggler or a sailor than an agricultural labourer, and his skin was bronzed by long exposure to the weather.
“She’s Sir Oswald’s widow,” answered one of the bystanders; “she’s his widow, more shame for her! It was she that brought him to his death, with her disgraceful goings-on.”
The man who spoke was a Raynham tradesman.
“What goings-on?” asked the tramp, eagerly. “I’m a stranger in these parts, and don’t know anything about yonder funeral.”
“More’s the pity,” replied the tradesman. “Everybody ought to know the story of that fine madam, who just passed us by in her carriage. It might serve as a warning for honest men not to be led away by a pretty face. That white-faced woman yonder is Lady Eversleigh. Nobody knows who she was, or where she came from, before Sir Oswald brought her home here. She hadn’t been home a month before she ran away from her husband with a young foreigner. She repented her wickedness before she’d got very far, and begged and prayed to be took back again, and vowed and declared that she’d been lured away by a villain; and that it was all a mistake. That’s how I’ve heard the story from the servants, and one and another. But Sir Oswald would not speak to her, and she would have been turned out of doors if it hadn’t been for an old friend of his. However, the end of her wickedness was that Sir Oswald poisoned himself, as every one knows.”
No more was said. The tramp followed the procession with the rest of the crowd, first to the village church, where a portion of the funeral service was read, and then back to the park, where the melancholy ceremonial was completed before the family mausoleum.
It was while the crowd made a circle round this mausoleum that the tramp contrived to push his way to the front rank of the spectators. He stood foremost amongst a group of villagers, when Lady Eversleigh happened to look towards the spot where he was stationed.
In that moment a sudden change came over the face of the widow. Its marble whiteness was dyed by a vivid crimson — a sudden flush of shame or indignation, which passed away quickly; but a dark shadow remained upon Lady Eversleigh’s brow after that red glow had faded from her cheek.
No one observed that change of countenance. The moment was a solemn one; and even those who did not really feel its solemnity, affected to do so.
At the last instant, when the iron doors of the mausoleum closed with a clanging sound upon the new inmate of that dark abode, Honoria’s fortitude all at once forsook her. One long cry, which was like a shriek wrung from the spirit of despair, broke from her colourless lips, and in the next moment she had sunk fainting upon the ground before those inexorable doors.
No sympathizing eyes had watched her looks, or friendly arm was stretched forth in time to support her. But when she lay lifeless and unconscious on the sodden grass, some touch of pity stirred the hearts of the two brothers, Lionel and Douglas Dale.
The elder, Lionel, stepped forward, and lifted that lifeless form from the ground. He carried the unconscious widow to the carriage, where he seated her.
Sense returned only too quickly to that tortured brain. Honoria Eversleigh opened her eyes, and recognized the man who stood by her side.
“I am better now,” she said. “Do not let my weakness cause you any trouble. I do not often faint; but that last moment was too bitter.”
“Are you really quite recovered? Can I venture to leave you?” asked Lionel Dale, in a much kinder tone than he had employed before in speaking to his uncle’s widow.
“Yes, indeed, I have quite recovered. I thank you for your kindness,” murmured Honoria, gently.
Lionel Dale went back to the carriage allotted to himself and his brother. On his way, he encountered Reginald Eversleigh.
“I have heard it whispered that my uncle’s wife was an actress,” said Reginald. “That exhibition just now was rather calculated to confirm the idea.”
“If by ‘exhibition’ you mean that outburst of despair, I am convinced that it was perfectly genuine,” answered Lionel, coldly.
“I am sorry you are so easily duped, my dear Lionel,” returned his cousin, with a sneer. “I did not think a pretty face would have such influence over you.”
No more was said. The two men passed to their respective carriages, and the funeral procession moved homewards.
In the grand dining-hall of the castle, Sir Oswald’s lawyer was to read the will. Kinsmen, friends, servants, all were assembled to hear the reading of that solemn document.
In the place of honour sat Lady Eversleigh. She sat on the right hand of the lawyer, calm and dignified, as if no taint of suspicion had ever tarnished her fame.
The solicitor read the will. It was that will which Sir Oswald had executed immediately after his marriage — the will, of which he had spoken to his nephew, Reginald.
It made Honoria Eversleigh sole mistress of the Raynham estates. It gave to Lionel and Douglas Dale property worth ten thousand a year. It gave to Reginald a small estate, producing an income of five hundred a year. To Captain Copplestone the baronet left a legacy of three thousand pounds, and an antique seal-ring which had been worn by himself.
The old servants of Raynham were all remembered, and some curious old plate and gold snuff-boxes were left to Mr. Wargrave, the rector, and Gilbert Ashburne.
This was all. Five hundred a year was the amount by which Reginald had profited by the death of a generous kinsman.
By the terms of Sir Oswald’s will the estates of Lionel and Douglas Dale would revert to Reginald Eversleigh in case the owners should die without direct heirs. If either of these young men were to die unmarried, his brother would succeed to his estate, worth five thousand a year. But if both should die, Reginald Eversleigh would become the owner of double that amount.
It was the merest chance, the shadow of a chance, for the lives of both young men were better than his own, inasmuch as both had led healthful and steadier lives than the dissipated Reginald Eversleigh. But even this poor chance was something.
“They may die,” he thought; “death lurks in every bush that borders the highway of life. They or both may die, and I may regain the wealth that should have been mine.”
He looked at the two young men. Lionel, the elder, was the handsomer of the two. He was fair, with brown curling hair, and frank blue eyes. Reginald, as he looked at him, thought bitterly, “I must indeed be the very fool of hope and credulity to fancy he will not marry. But, if he were safe, I should not so much fear Douglas.” The younger, Douglas, was a man whom some people would have called plain. But the dark sallow face, with its irregular features, was illuminated by an expression of mingled intelligence and amiability, which possessed a charm for all judges worth pleasing.
Lionel was the clergyman, Douglas the lawyer, or rather law-student, for the glory of his maiden brief was yet to come.
How Reginald envied these fortunate kinsmen! He hated them with passionate hate. He looked from them to Honoria, the woman against whom he had plotted — the woman who triumphed in spite of him — for he could not imagine that grief for a dead husband could have any place in the heart of a woman who found herself mistress of such a domain as Raynham, and its dependencies.
Lady Eversleigh’s astonishment was unbounded. This will placed her in even a loftier position than that which she had occupied when possessed of the confidence and affection of her husband. For her pride there was some consolation in this thought; but the triumph, which was sweet to the proud spirit, afforded no balm for the wounded heart. He was gone — he whose love had made her mistress of that wealth and splendour. He was gone from her for ever, and he had died believing her false.
In the midst of her triumph the widow bowed her head upon her hands, and sobbed convulsively. The tears wrung from her in this moment were the first she had shed that day, and they were very bitter.
Reginald Eversleigh watched her with scorn and hatred in his heart.
“What do you say now, Lionel?” he said to his cousin, when the three young men had left the dining-hall, and were seated at luncheon in a smaller chamber. “You did not think my respected aunt a clever actress when she fainted before the doors of the mausoleum. You will at least acknowledge that the piece of acting she favoured us with just now was superb.”
“What do you mean by ‘a piece of acting’?”
“That outburst of grief which my lady indulged in, when she found herself mistress of Raynham.”
“I believe that it was genuine,” answered Mr. Dale, gravely.
“Oh, you think the inheritance a fitting subject for lamentation?”
“No, Reginald. I think a woman who had wronged her husband, and had been the indirect cause of his death, might well feel sorrow when she discovered how deeply she had been loved, and how fully she had been trusted by that generous husband.”
“Bah!” cried Reginald, contemptuously. “I tell you, man, Lady Eversleigh is a consummate actress, though she never acted before a better audience than the clodhoppers at a country fair. Do you know who my lady was when Sir Oswald picked her out of the gutter? If you don’t, I’ll enlighten you. She was a street ballad-singer, whom the baronet found one night starving in the market-place of a country town. He picked her up — out of charity; and because the creature happened to have a pretty face, he was weak enough to marry her.”
“Respect the follies of the dead,” replied Lionel. “My uncle’s love was generous. I only regret that the object of it was so unworthy.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Reginald, “I thought just now that you sympathized with my lady.”
“I sympathize with every remorseful sinner,” said Lionel.
“Ah, that’s your shop!” cried Reginald, who could not conceal his bitter feelings. “You sympathize with Lady Eversleigh because she is a wealthy sinner, and mistress of Raynham Castle. Perhaps you’ll stop here and try to step into Sir Oswald’s shoes. I don’t know whether there’s any law against a man marrying his uncle’s widow.”
“You insult me, and you insult the dead, Sir Reginald, by the tone in which you discuss these things,” answered Lionel Dale. “I shall leave Raynham by this evening’s coach, and there is little likelihood that Lady Eversleigh and I shall ever meet again. It is not for me to judge her sins, or penetrate the secrets of her heart. I believe that her grief to-day was thoroughly genuine. It is not because a woman has sinned that she must needs be incapable of any womanly feeling.”
“You are in a very charitable humour, Lionel,” said Sir Reginald, with a sneer; “but you can afford to be charitable.”
Mr. Dale did not reply to this insolent speech.
Sir Reginald Eversleigh and his two cousins left the village of Raynham by the same coach. The evening was finer than the day had been, and a full moon steeped the landscape in her soft light, as the travellers looked their last on the grand old castle.
The baronet contemplated the scene with unmitigated rage.
“Hers!” he muttered; “hers! to have and hold so long as she lives! A nameless woman has tricked me out of the inheritance which should have been mine. But let her beware! Despair is bold, and I may yet discover some mode of vengeance.”
While the departing traveller mused thus, a pale woman stood at one of the windows of Raynham Castle, looking out upon the woods, over which the moon sailed in all her glory.
“Mine!” she said to herself; “those lands and woods belong to me! — to me, who have stood face to face with starvation! — to me, who have considered it a privilege to sleep in an empty barn! They are mine; but the possession of them brings no pleasure. My life has been blighted by a wrong so cruel, that wealth and position are worthless in my eyes.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50