Early upon the morning after the funeral, a lad from the village of Raynham presented himself at the principal door of the servants’ offices, and asked to see Lady Eversleigh’s maid.
The young woman who filled that office was summoned, and came to inquire the business of the messenger.
Her name was Jane Payland; she was a Londoner by birth, and a citizen of the world by education.
She had known very little of either comfort or prosperity before she entered the service of Lady Eversleigh. She was, therefore, in some measure at least, devoted to the interests of that mistress, and she was inclined to believe in her innocence; though, even to her, the story of the night in Yarborough Tower seemed almost too wild and improbable for belief.
Jane Payland was about twenty-four years of age, tall, slim, and active. She had no pretensions to beauty; but was the sort of person who is generally called lady-like.
This morning she went to the little lobby, in which the boy had been told to wait, indignant at the impertinence of anyone who could dare to intrude upon her mistress at such a time.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked angrily.
“If you please, ma’am, I’m Widow Beckett’s son,” the boy answered, in evident terror of the young woman in the rustling black silk dress and smart cap; “and I’ve brought this letter, please; and I was only to give it to the lady’s own maid, please.
“I am her own maid,” answered Jane.
The boy handed her a dirty-looking letter, directed, in a bold clear hand, to Lady Eversleigh.
“Who gave you this?” asked Jane Payland, looking at the dirty envelope with extreme disgust.
“It was a tramp as give it me — a tramp as I met in the village; and I’m to wait for an answer, please, and I’m to take it to him at the ‘Hen and Chickens.’”
“How dare you bring Lady Eversleigh a letter given you by a tramp — a begging letter, of course? I wonder at your impudence.”
“I didn’t go to do no harm,” expostulated Master Beckett. “He says to me, he says, ‘If her ladyship once sets eyes upon that letter, she’ll arnswer it fast enough; and now you cut and run,’ he says; ‘it’s a matter of life and death, it is, and it won’t do to waste time over it.’”
These words were rather startling to the mind of Jane Payland. What was she to do? Her own idea was, that the letter was the concoction of some practised impostor, and that it would be an act of folly to take it to her mistress. But what if the letter should be really of importance? What if there should be some meaning in the boy’s words? Was it not her duty to convey the letter to Lady Eversleigh?
“Stay here till I return,” she said, pointing to a bench in the lobby.
The boy seated himself on the extremest edge of the bench, with his hat on his knees, and Jane Payland left him.
She went straight to the suite of apartments occupied by Lady Eversleigh.
Honoria did not raise her eyes when Jane Payland entered the room. There was a gloomy abstraction in her face, and melancholy engrossed her thoughts.
“I beg pardon for disturbing you, my lady,” said Jane; “but a lad from the village has brought a letter, given him by a tramp; and, according to his account, the man talked in such a very strange manner that I thought I really ought to tell you, my lady; and —”
To the surprise of Jane Payland, Lady Eversleigh started suddenly from her seat, and advanced towards her, awakened into sudden life and energy as by a spell.
“Give me the letter,” she cried, abruptly.
She took the soiled and crumpled envelope from her servant’s hand with a hasty gesture.
“You may go,” she said; “I will ring when I want you.”
Jane Payland would have given a good deal to see that letter opened; but she had no excuse for remaining longer in the room. So she departed, and went to her lady’s dressing-room, which, as well as all the other apartments, opened out of the corridor.
In about a quarter of an hour, Lady Eversleigh’s bell rang, and Jane hurried to the morning-room.
She found her mistress still seated by the hearth. Her desk stood open on the table by her side; and on the desk lay a letter, so newly addressed that the ink on the envelope was still wet.
“You will take that to the lad who is waiting,” said Honoria, pointing to this newly-written letter.
“Yes, my lady.”
Jane Payland departed. On the way between Lady Eversleigh’s room and the lobby in the servants’ offices, she had ample leisure to examine the letter.
It was addressed —
“Mr. Brown, at the ‘Hen and Chickens.’”
It was sealed with a plain seal. Jane Payland was very well acquainted with the writing of her mistress, and she perceived at once that this letter was not directed in Lady Eversleigh’s usual hand.
The writing had been disguised. It was evident, therefore, that this was a letter which Lady Eversleigh would have shrunk from avowing as her own.
Every moment the mystery grew darker. Jane Payland liked her mistress; but there were two things which she liked still better. Those two things were power and gain. She perceived in the possession of her lady’s secrets a high-road to the mastery of both. Thus it happened that, when she had very nearly arrived at the lobby where the boy was waiting, Jane Payland suddenly changed her mind, and darted off in another direction.
She hurried along a narrow passage, up the servants’ staircase, and into her own room. Here she remained for some fifteen or twenty minutes, occupied with some task which required the aid of a lighted candle.
At the end of that time she emerged, with a triumphant smile upon her thin lips, and Lady Eversleigh’s letter in her hand.
The seal which secured the envelope was a blank seal; but it was not the same as the one with which Honoria Eversleigh had fastened her letter half an hour before.
The abigail carried the letter to the boy, and the boy departed, very well pleased to get clear of the castle without having received any further reproof.
He went at his best speed to the little inn, where he inquired for Mr. Brown.
That gentleman emerged presently from the inn-yard, where he had been hanging about, listening to all that was to be heard, and talking to the ostler.
He took the letter from the boy’s hand, and rewarded him with the promised shilling. Then he left the yard, and walked down a lane leading towards the river.
In this unfrequented lane he tore open the envelope, and read his letter.
It was very brief:
“Since my only chance of escaping persecution is to accede, in some measure, to your demands, I will consent to see you. If you will wait for me to-night, at nine o’clock, by the water-side, to the left of the bridge, I will try to come to that spot at that hour. Heaven grant the meeting may be our last!”
Exactly as the village church clock struck nine, a dark figure crossed a low, flat meadow, lying near the water, and appeared upon the narrow towing-path by the river’s edge. A man was walking on this pathway, his face half hidden by a slouched hat, and a short pipe in his month.
He lifted his hat presently, and bared his head to the cool night breeze. His hair was closely cropped, like that of a convict. The broad moonlight shining fall upon his face, revealed a dark, weather-beaten countenance — the face of the tramp who had stood at the park-gates to watch the passing of Sir Oswald’s funeral train — the face of the tramp who had loitered in the stable-yard of the “Hen and Chickens”— the face of the man who had been known in Ratcliff Highway by the ominous name of Black Milsom.
This was the man who waited for Honoria Eversleigh in the moonlight by the quiet river.
He advanced to meet her as she came out of the meadow and appeared upon the pathway.
“Good evening, my lady,” he said. “I suppose I ought to be humbly beholden to such a grand lady as you for coming here to meet the likes of me. But it seems rather strange you must needs come out here in secret to see such a very intimate acquaintance as I am, considering as you’re the mistress of that great castle up yonder. I must say it seems uncommon hard a man can’t pay a visit to his own —”
“Hush!” cried Lady Eversleigh. “Do not call me by that name, if you do not wish to inspire me with a deeper loathing than that which I already feel for you.”
“Well, I’m blest!” muttered Mr. Milsom; “that’s uncommon civil language from a young woman to —”
Honoria stopped him by a sudden gesture.
“I suppose you expect to profit by this interview?” she said.
“That I most decidedly do expect,” answered the tramp.
“In that case, you will carefully avoid all mention of the past, for otherwise you will get nothing from me.”
The man responded at first only with a sulky growl. Then, after a brief pause, he muttered —
“I don’t want to talk about the past any more than you do, my fine, proud madam. If it isn’t a pleasant time for you to remember, it isn’t a pleasant time for me to remember. It’s all very well for a young woman who has her victuals found for her to give herself airs about the manner other people find their victuals; but a man must live somehow or other. If he can’t get his living in a pleasant way, he must get it in an unpleasant way.”
After this there was a silence which lasted for some minutes. Lady Eversleigh was trying to control the agitation which oppressed her, despite the apparent calmness of her manner. Black Milsom walked by her side in sullen silence, waiting for her to speak.
The spot was lonely. Lady Eversleigh and her companion were justified in believing themselves unobserved.
But it was not so. Lonely as the spot was, those two were not alone. A stealthy, gliding, female figure, dark and shadowy in the uncertain light, had followed Lady Eversleigh from the castle gates, and that figure was beside her now, as she walked with Black Milsom upon the river bank.
The spy crept by the side of the hedge that separated the river bank from the meadow; and sheltered thus, she was able to distinguish almost every word spoken by the two upon the bank, so clearly sounded their voices in the still night air.
“How did you find me here?” asked Lady Eversleigh, at last.
“By accident. You gave us the slip so cleverly that time you took it into your precious head to cut and run, that, hunt where we would, we were never able to find you. I gave it up for a bad job; and then things went agen me, and I got sent away. But I’m my own master again now; and I mean to make good use of my liberty, I can tell you, my lady. I little knew how you’d feathered your nest while I was on the other side of the water. I little thought how you would turn up at last, when I least expected to see you. You might have knocked me down with a feather yesterday, when that fine funeral came out of the park gates, and I saw your face at the window of one of the coaches. You must have been an uncommonly clever young woman, and an uncommonly sly one, to get a baronite for your husband, and to get a spooney old cove to leave you all his fortune, after behaving so precious bad to him. Did your husband know who you were when he married you?”
“He found me starving in the street of a country town. He knew that I was friendless, homeless, penniless. That knowledge did not prevent him making me his wife.”
“Ah! but there was something more he didn’t know. He didn’t know that you were Black Milsom’s daughter; you didn’t tell him that, I’ll lay a wager.”
“I did not tell him that which I know to be a lie,” replied Honoria, calmly.
“Oh, it’s a lie, is it? You are not my daughter, I suppose?”
“No, Thomas Milsom, I am not — I know and feel that I am not”
“Humph!” muttered Black Milsom, savagely; “if you were not my daughter, how was it that you grew up to call me father?”
“Because I was forced to do so. I remember being told to call you father. I remember being beaten because I refused to do so — beaten till I submitted from very fear of being beaten to death. Oh, it was a bright and happy childhood, was it not, Thomas Milsom? A childhood to look back to with love and regret. And now, finding that fortune has lifted me out of the gutter into which you flung me, you come to me to demand your share of my good fortune, I suppose?”
“That’s about it, my lady,” answered Mr. Milsom, with supreme coolness. “I don’t mind a few hard words, more or less — they break no bones; and, what’s more, I’m used to ’em. What I want is money, ready money, down on the nail, and plenty of it. You may pelt me as hard as you like with fine speeches, as long as you cash up liberally; but cash I must have, by fair means or foul, and I want a pretty good sum to start with.”
“You want a large sum,” said Honoria, quietly; “how much do you want?”
“Well, I don’t want to take a mean advantage of your generosity, so I’ll be moderate. Say five thousand pounds — to begin with.”
“And you expect to get that from me?”
“Of course I do.”
“Five thousand pounds?”
“Five thousand pounds, ready money.”
Lady Eversleigh stopped suddenly, and looked the man full in the face.
“You shall not have five thousand pence,” she exclaimed, “not five thousand pence. My dead husband’s money shall never pass into your hands, to be squandered in scenes of vice and crime. If you choose to live an honest life, I will allow you a hundred a year — a pension which shall be paid you quarterly — through the hands of my London solicitors. Beyond this, I will not give you a halfpenny.”
“What!” roared Black Milsom, in an infuriated tone. “What, Jenny Milsom, Honoria, Lady Eversleigh, or whatever you may please to call yourself, do you think I will stand that? Do you think I will hold my tongue unless you pay me handsomely to keep silence? You don’t know the kind of man you have to deal with. To-morrow every one in the village shall know what a high-born lady lives up at the old castle — they shall know what a dutiful daughter the lady of Raynham is, and how she suffers her father to tramp barefoot in the mud, while she rides in her carriage!”
“You may tell them what you please.”
“I’ll tell them plenty, you may depend upon it.”
“Will you tell them how Valentine Jernam came by his death?” asked Honoria, in a strange tone.
The tramp started, and for a few moments seemed at a loss for words in which to reply. But he recovered himself very quickly, and exclaimed, savagely —
“I’m not going to tell them any of your senseless dreams and fancies; but I mean to tell them who you are. That will be quite enough for them; and before I do let them know so much, you’d better change your mind, and act generously towards me.”
“Upon that subject I shall never change my mind,” answered Honoria Eversleigh, with perfect self-possession. “You will accept the pension I offer you, or you will reject it, as you please — you will never receive more, directly or indirectly, from me,” she continued, presently. “As for your threat of telling my miserable history to the people of this place, it is a threat which can have no influence over me. Tell these people what you choose. Happily, the opinion of the world is of small account to me.”
“You will change your mind between this and to-morrow morning,” cried Black Milsom.
He was almost beside himself with rage and mortification. He felt as if he could have torn this woman to pieces — this proud and courageous creature, who dared to defy him.
“I shall not change my mind,” answered Honoria. “You could not conquer me, even when I was a weak and helpless child; you must remember that.”
“Humph! you were rather a queer temper in those days — a strange-looking child, too, with your white face and your big black eyes.”
“Aye; and even in those days my will was able to do battle with men and women, and to support me even against your violence. You, and those belonging to you, were able to break my heart, but were not strong enough to bend my spirit. I have the same spirit yet, Thomas Milsom; and you will find it useless to try to turn me from my purpose.”
The man did not answer immediately. He looked fiercely, searchingly, at the pale, resolute face that was turned to him in the moonlight.
“The name of my solicitor is Dunford,” said Honoria, presently; “Mr. Joseph Dunford, of Gray’s Inn. If you apply to him on your arrival in London, he will give you the first installment of your pension.”
“Five and twenty pounds!” grumbled Milsom; “a very handsome amount, upon my word! And you have fifteen thousand a year!”
“May the curse of a black and bitter heart cling to you!” cried the man.
Lady Eversleigh turned from her companion with a gesture of loathing. But there was no fear in her heart. She walked slowly back to the gate leading into the meadow, followed by Milsom, who heaped abusive epithets upon her at every step. As she entered the meadow, the figure of the spy drew suddenly back into the shadow of the hedge; from which it did not emerge till Honoria had disappeared through the little gate on the opposite side of the field, and the heavy tramp of Milsom’s footsteps had died away in the distance.
Then the figure came forth into the broad moonlight; and that subdued, but clear radiance, revealed the pale, thin face of Jane Payland.
When Jane Payland was brushing her mistress’s hair that night, she ventured to sound her as to her future movements, by a few cautions and respectful questions, to which Lady Eversleigh replied with less than her usual reticence. From her lady’s answers, the waiting-maid ascertained that she had no idea of seeking any relaxation in change of scene, but purposed to reside at Raynham for at least one year.
Jane Payland wondered at the decision of her mistress’s manner. She had imagined that Lady Eversleigh would be eager to leave a place in which she found herself the object of disapprobation and contempt.
“If I were her, I would go to France, and be a great lady in Paris — which is twenty times gayer and more delightful than any place in stupid, straight-laced old England,” thought Jane Payland. “If I had her money, I would spend it, and enjoy life, in spite of all the world.”
“I’m afraid your health will suffer from a long residence at the castle, my lady,” said Jane, presently, determined to do all in her power to bring about a change in her mistress’s plans. “After such a shock as you have had, some distraction must be necessary. When I had the honour of living with the Duchess of Mountaintour, and we lost the dear duke, the first thing I said to the duchess, after the funeral, was —‘Change of scene, your grace, change of scene; nothing like change of scene when the mind has received a sudden blow.’ The sweet duchess’s physician actually echoed my words, though he had never heard them; and within a week of the sad ceremony we started for the Continent, where we remained a year; at the end of which period the dear duchess was united to the Marquis of Purpeltown.”
“The duchess was speedily consoled,” replied Lady Eversleigh, with a smile which was not without bitterness. “No doubt the variety and excitement of a Continental tour did much towards blotting out all memory of her dead husband. But I do not wish to forget. I am in no hurry to obliterate the image of one who was most dear to me.”
Jane Payland looked very searchingly at the pale, earnest face reflected in the glass.
“For me, that which the world calls pleasure never possessed any powerful fascination,” continued Honoria, gravely. “My childhood and youth were steeped in sorrow — sorrow beyond anything you can imagine, Jane Payland; though I have heard you say that you have seen much trouble. The remembrance of it comes back to me more vividly than ever now. Thus it is that I shrink from society, which can give me no real pleasure. Had I no special reason for remaining at Raynham, I should not care to leave it”
“But you have a special reason, my lady?” inquired Jane, eagerly.
“May I presume to ask —”
“You may, Jane; and I think I may venture to trust you fully, for I believe you are my friend. I mean to stay at Raynham, because, in this hour of sorrow and desolation, Providence has not abandoned me entirely to despair. I have one bright hope, which renders the thought of my future endurable to me. I stay at Raynham, because I hope next spring an heir will be born to Raynham Castle.”
“Oh, what happiness! And you wish the heir to be born at the castle, my lady?”
“I do! I have been the victim of one plot, but I will not fall blindfold into a second snare; and there is no infamy which my enemies are not base enough to attempt. There shall be no mystery about my life. From the hour of my husband’s death to the hour of his child’s birth, the friends of that lost husband shall know every act of my existence. They shall see me day by day. The old servants of the family shall attend me. I will live in the old house, surrounded by all who knew and loved Sir Oswald. No vile plotters shall ever be able to say that there was trick or artifice connected with the birth of that child. If I live to protect and watch over it, that infant life shall be guarded against every danger, and defended from every foe. And there will be many foes ready to assail the inheritor of Raynham.”
“Why so, my lady?”
“Because that young life, and my life, will stand between a villain and a fortune. If I and my child were both to die, Reginald Eversleigh would become possessor of the wealth to which he once was the acknowledged heir. By the terms of Sir Oswald’s will, he receives very little in the present, but the future has many chances for him. If I die childless, he will inherit the Raynham estates. If his two cousins, the Dales, die without direct heirs, he will inherit ten thousand a year.”
“But that seems only a poor chance after all, my lady. There is no reason why Sir Reginald Eversleigh should survive you or the two Mr. Dales.”
“There is no reason, except his own villany,” answered Honoria, thoughtfully. “There are some men capable of anything. But let us talk no further on the subject. I have confided my secret to you, Jane Payland, because I think you are faithfully devoted to my interests. You know now why I am resolved to remain at Raynham Castle; and you think my decision wise, do you not?”
“Well, yes; I certainly do, my lady,” answered Jane, after some moments of hesitation.
“And now leave me. Good night! I have kept you long this evening, I see by that timepiece. But my thoughts were wandering, and I was unconscious of the progress of time. Good night!”
Jane Payland took a respectful leave of her mistress, and departed, absorbed in thought.
“Is she a good woman or a bad one?” she wondered, as she sat by the fire in her own comfortable apartment. “If she is a bad woman, she’s an out-and-outer; for she looks one in the face, with those superb black eyes of hers, as bright and clear as the image of truth itself. She must be good and true. She must! And yet that night’s absence, and that story about Yarborough Tower — that seems too much for anybody on earth to believe.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05