Joseph Duncombe had been absent from River View Cottage little more than a month, and the life of its inmates had been smooth and changeless as the placid surface of a lake. They sought no society but that of each other. Existence glided by, and the eventless days left little to remember except the sweet tranquillity of a happy home.
It was on a wet, dull, unsettled July day that Rosamond Jernam found her life changed all at once, while the cause for that dark change remained a mystery to her.
After idling away half the morning, Captain Jernam discovered that he had an important business letter to write to the captain of his trading ship, the “Pizarro.”
On opening his portfolio, the captain found himself without a single sheet of foreign letter-paper. He told this difficulty to his wife, as it was his habit to tell her all his difficulties; and he found her, as usual, able to give him assistance.
“There is always foreign letter-paper in papa’s desk,” she said; “you can use that.”
“But, my dear Rosy, I could not think of opening your father’s desk in his absence.”
“And why not?” cried Rosamond, laughing. “Do you think papa has any secrets hidden there; or that he keeps some mysterious packet of old love-letters tied up with a blue ribbon, which he would not like your prying eyes to discover? You may open the desk, George. I give you my permission; and if papa should be angry, the blame shall fall upon me alone.”
The desk was a large old-fashioned piece of furniture, which stood in the corner of Captain Duncombe’s favourite sitting-room.
“But how am I to open this ponderous piece of machinery?” asked George. “It seems to be locked.”
“It is locked,” answered his wife. “Luckily I happen to have a key which precisely fits it. There, sir, is the key; and now I leave you to devote yourself to business, while I go to see about dinner.”
She held up her pretty rosy lips to be kissed, and then tripped away, leaving the captain to achieve a duty for which he had no particular relish.
He unlocked the desk, and found a quire of letter-paper. He dipped a pen in ink, tried it, and then began to write.
He wrote, “London, July 20th,” and “My Dear Boyd;” and having written thus much, he came to a stop. The easiest part of the letter was finished.
Captain Jernam sat with his elbows resting on the table, looking straight before him, in pure absence of mind. As he did so, his eyes were caught suddenly by an object lying amongst the pens and pencils in the tray before him.
That object was a bent gold coin.
His face grew pale as he snatched up the coin, and examined it closely. It was a small Brazilian coin, bent and worn, and on one side of it was scratched the initial “G.”
That small battered coin was very familiar to George Jernam’s gaze, and it was scarcely strange if the warm life-blood ebbed from his cheeks, and left them ashy pale.
The coin was a keepsake which he had given to his murdered brother, Valentine, on the eve of their last parting.
And he found it here — here, in Joseph Duncombe’s desk!
For some moments he sat aghast, motionless, powerless even to think. He could not realize the full weight of this strange discovery. He could only remember the warm breath of the tropical night on which he and his brother had bidden each other farewell — the fierce light of the tropical stars beneath which they had stood when they parted.
Then he began to ask himself how that farewell token, the golden coin, which he had taken from his pocket in that parting hour, and upon which he had idly scratched his own initial, had come into the possession of Joseph Duncombe.
He was not a man of the world, and he was not able to reason calmly and logically on the subject of his brother’s untimely fate. He shared Joyce’s rooted idea, that the escape of Valentine’s murderer was only temporary, and that, sooner or later, accident would disclose the criminal.
It seemed now as if the eventful moment had come. Here, on this spot, near the scene of his brother’s disappearance, he came upon this token — this relic, which told that Valentine had been in some manner associated with Joseph Duncombe.
And yet Joseph Duncombe and George had talked long and earnestly on the subject of the murdered sailor’s fate, and in all their talk Captain Duncombe had never acknowledged any acquaintance with its details.
This was strange.
Still more incomprehensible to George Jernam was the fact that Valentine should have parted with the farewell token, except with his life, for his last words to his brother had been —
“I’ll keep the bit of gold, George, to my dying day, in memory of your fidelity and love.”
There had been something more between these two men than a common brotherhood: there had been the bond of a joyless childhood spent together, and their affection for each other was more than the ordinary love of brothers.
“I don’t believe he would have parted with that piece of gold,” cried George, “not if he had been without a sixpence in the world.”
“And he was rich. It was the money he carried about him which tempted his murderer. It was near here that he met his fate — on this very spot, perhaps. Joyce told me that before my father-in-law built this house, there was a dilapidated building, which was a meeting-place for the vilest scoundrels in Ratcliff Highway. But how came that coin in Joseph Duncombe’s desk? — how, unless Joseph Duncombe was concerned in my brother’s murder?”
This idea, once aroused in the mind of George Jernam, was not to be driven away. It seemed too hideous for reality; but it took possession of his mind, nevertheless, and he sat alone, trying to shut horrible fancies out of his brain, but trying uselessly.
He remembered Joseph Duncombe’s wealth. Had all that wealth been honestly won?
He remembered the captain’s restlessness — his feverish desire to run away from a home in which he possessed so much to render life happy.
Might not that eagerness to return to the sailor’s wild, roving life have its root in the tortures of a guilty conscience?
“His very kindness to me may be prompted by a vague wish to make some paltry atonement for a dark wrong done my brother,” thought George.
He remembered Joseph Duncombe’s seeming goodness of heart, and wondered if such a man could possibly be concerned in the darkest crime of which mankind can be guilty. But he remembered also that the worst and vilest of men were often such accomplished hypocrites as to remain unsuspected of evil until the hour when accident revealed their iniquity.
“It is so, perhaps, with this man,” thought George Jernam. “That air of truth and goodness may be but a mask. I know what a master-passion the greed of gain is with some men. It has doubtless been the passion of this man’s heart. The wretches who lured Valentine Jernam to this house were tools of Joseph Duncombe’s. How otherwise could this token have fallen into his hands?”
He tried to find some other answer to this question; but he tried in vain. That little piece of gold seemed to fasten the dark stigma of guilt upon the absent owner of the house.
“And I have shaken this man’s hand!” cried George. “I am the husband of his daughter. I live beneath the shelter of his roof — in this house, which was bought perhaps with my brother’s blood. Great heavens! it is too horrible.”
For two long hours George Jernam sat brooding over the strange discovery which had changed the whole current of his life. Rosamond came and peeped in at the door.
“Still busy, George?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, in a strange, harsh tone, “I am very busy.”
That altered voice alarmed the loving wife. She crept into the room, and stood behind her husband’s chair.
“George,” she said, “your voice sounded so strange just now; you are not ill, are you, darling?”
“No, no; I only want to be alone. Go, Rosamond.”
The wife could not fail to be just a little offended by her husband’s manner. The pretty rosy lips pouted, and then tears came into the bright blue eyes.
George Jernam’s head was bent upon his clasped hands, and he took no heed of his wife’s sorrow. She could not leave him without one more anxious question.
“Is there anything amiss with you, George?” she asked.
“Nothing that you can cure.”
The harshness of his tone, the coldness of his manner, wounded her heart. She said no more, but went quietly from the room.
Never before had her beloved George spoken unkindly to her — never before had the smallest cloud obscured the calm horizon of her married life.
After this, the dark cloud hung black and heavy over that once happy household; the sun never shone again upon the young wife’s home.
She tried to penetrate the secret of this sudden change, but she could not do so. She could complain of no unkindness from her husband — he never spoke harshly to her after that first day. His manner was gentle and indulgent; but it seemed as if his love had died, leaving in its place only a pitiful tenderness, strangely blended with sadness and gloom.
He asked Rosamond several questions about her father’s past life; but on that subject she could tell him very little. She had never lived with her father until after the building of River View Cottage, and she knew nothing of his existence before that time, except that he had only been in England during brief intervals, and that he had always come to see her at school when he had an opportunity of doing so.
“He is the best and dearest of fathers,” she said, affectionately.
George Jernam asked if Captain Duncombe had been in England during that spring in which Valentine met his death.
After a moment’s reflection, Rosamond replied in the affirmative.
“I remember his coming to see me that spring,” she said. “He came early in March, and again in April, and it was then he began first to talk of settling in England.”
“And with that assurance my last hope vanishes,” thought George.
He had asked the question in the faint hope of hearing that Joseph Duncombe was far away from England at the time of the murder.
A fortnight after the discovery of the Brazilian coin, George Jernam announced to his wife that he was about to leave her. He was going to the coast of Africa, he said. He had tried to reconcile himself to a landsman’s life, and had found it unendurable.
The blow fell very heavily on poor Rosamond’s loving heart.
“We seemed so happy, George, only two short weeks ago,” she pleaded.
“Yes,” he answered, “I tried to be happy; but you see, the life doesn’t suit me. Tour father couldn’t rest in this house, though he had made himself such a comfortable home. No more can I rest here. There is a curse upon the house, perhaps,” he added, with a bitter laugh.
Rosamond burst into tears.
“Oh, George, you will break my heart,” she cried. “I thought our lives were to be so happy; and now our happiness ends all at once like a broken dream. It is because you are weary of me, and of my love, that you are going away. You promised my father that you would remain with me till his return.”
“I did, Rosamond,” answered her husband, gravely, “and, as I am an honest man, I meant to keep that promise! I am not weary of your love — that is as precious to me as ever it was. But you must not continue to reside beneath this roof. I tell you there is a curse upon this house, Rosamond, and neither peace nor happiness can be the lot of those who dwell within its fatal walls. You must go down to Allanbay, where you may find kind friends, where you may be happy, dear, while I am away.”
“But, George, what is all this mystery?”
“Ask me no questions, Rosamond, for I can answer none. Believe me when I tell you that you have no share in the change that has come upon me. My feelings towards you remain unaltered; but within the last few weeks I have made a discovery which has struck a death-blow to my happiness. I go out once more a homeless wanderer, because the quiet of domestic life has become unbearable to me. I want bustle, danger, hard work. I want to get away from my own thoughts.”
Rosamond in vain implored her husband to tell her more than this. He, so yielding of old, was on this point inflexible.
Before the leaves had begun to fall in the dreary autumn days the “Albatross” was ready for a new voyage. The first mate took her down to Plymouth Harbour, there to wait the coming of her captain, who travelled into Devonshire by mail-coach, taking Rosamond to her future abode.
At any other time Rosamond would have been delighted with the romantic beauty of that Devonian village, where her husband had selected a pleasant cottage for her, near his aunt’s abode; but a settled melancholy had taken possession of the once joyous girl. She had brooded continually over her husband’s altered conduct, and she had at last arrived at a terrible conclusion.
She believed that he was mad. What but sudden insanity could have produced so great a change? — a change for which it was impossible to imagine a cause.
“If he had been absent from me for some time, and had returned an altered creature, I should not be so much bewildered by the change,” Rosamond said to herself. “But the transformation occurred in an hour. He saw no strange visitor; he received no letter. No tidings of any kind could possibly have reached him. He entered my father’s sitting~room a light-hearted, happy man; he came out of it gloomy and miserable. Can I doubt that the change is something more than any ordinary alteration of feeling or character?”
Poor Rosamond remembered having heard of the fatal effects of sunstrokes — effects which have sometimes revealed themselves long after the occurrence of the calamity that caused them; and she told herself that the change in George Jernam’s nature must needs be the result of such a calamity.
She entreated her husband to consult an eminent physician as to the state of his health; but she dared not press her request, so coldly was it received.
“Who told you that I was ill?” he asked; “I am not ill. All the physicians in Christendom could do nothing for me.”
After this, Rosamond could say no more. For worlds she would not have revealed to a stranger her sad suspicion of George Jernam’s insanity. She could only pray that Providence would protect and guide him in his roving life.
“The excitement and hard work of his existence on board ship may work a cure,” she thought, trying to be hopeful. “It is very possible that the calm monotony of a landsman’s life may have produced a bad effect upon his brain. I can only trust in Providence — I can only pray night and day for the welfare of him I love so fondly.”
And so they parted. George Jernam left his wife with sadness in his heart; but it was a kind of sadness in which love had little share.
“I have thought too much of my own happiness,” he said to himself, “and I have left my brother’s death unavenged. Have I forgotten the time when he carried me along the lonely sea-shore in his loving arms? Have I forgotten the years in which he was father, mother — all the world to me? No; by heaven! I have not. The time has come when the one thought of my life must be revenge — revenge upon the murderer of my brother, whosoever he may be.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05