There were two inns in the High Street of Frimley. The days of mail~coaches were not yet over, and the glory of country inns had not entirely departed. Several coaches passed through Frimley in the course of the day, and many passengers stopped to eat and drink and refresh themselves at the quaint old hostelries; but it was not often that the old-fashioned bed-chambers were occupied, even for one night, by any one but a commercial traveller; and it was a still rarer occurrence for a visitor to linger for any time at Frimley.
There was nothing to see in the place; and any one travelling for pleasure would have chosen rather to stay in the more picturesque village of Hallgrove.
It was therefore a matter of considerable surprise to the landlady of the “Rose and Crown,” when a lady and her maid alighted from the “Highflyer” coach and demanded apartments, which they would be likely to occupy for a week or more.
The lady was so plainly attired, in a dress and cloak of dark woollen stuff, and the simplest of black velvet bonnets, that it was only by her distinguished manner, and especially graceful bearing, that Mrs. Tippets, the landlady, was able to perceive any difference between the mistress and the maid.
“I am travelling in Dorsetshire for my health,” said the lady, who was no other than Honoria Eversleigh, “and the quiet of this place suits me. You will be good enough to prepare rooms for myself and my maid.”
“You would like your maid’s bed-room to be adjoining your own, no doubt, madam?” hazarded the landlady.
“No,” answered Honoria; “I do not wish that; I prefer entire privacy in my own apartment.”
“As you please, madam — we have plenty of bedrooms.”
The landlady of the “Rose and Crown” ushered her visitors into the best sitting-room the house afforded — an old-fashioned apartment, with a wide fire-place, high wooden mantel-piece, and heavily-timbered ceiling — a room which seemed to belong to the past rather than the present.
Lady Eversleigh sat by the table in a thoughtful attitude, while the fire was being lighted and a tray of tea-things arranged for that refreshment which is most welcome of all others to an Englishwoman. Jane Payland stood by the opposite angle of the mantel-piece, watching her mistress with a countenance almost as thoughtful as that of Honoria herself.
It was in the wintry dusk that these two travellers arrived at Frimley. Jane Payland walked to one of the narrow, old-fashioned windows, and looked out into the street, where lights were burning dimly here and there.
“What a strange old place, ma’am,” she said.
Honoria had forbidden her to say “my lady” since their departure from Raynham.
“Yes,” her mistress answered, absently; “it is a world-forgotten old place.”
“But the rest and change will, no doubt, be beneficial, ma’am,” said Miss Payland, in her most insinuating tone; “and I am sure you must require change and fresh country air after being pent up in a London street.”
Lady Eversleigh shook off her abstraction of manner, and turned towards her servant, with a calm, serious gaze.
“I want change of scene, and the fresh breath of country air, Jane,” she said, gravely; “but it is not for those I came to Frimley, and you know that it is not. Why should we try to deceive each other? The purpose of my life is a very grave one; the secret of my coming and going is a very bitter secret, and if I do not choose to share it with you, I withhold nothing that you need care to know. Let me play my part unwatched and unquestioned. You will find yourself well rewarded by and by for your forbearance and devotion. Be faithful to me, my good girl; but do not try to discover the motive of my actions, and believe, even when they seem most strange to you, that they are justified by one great purpose.”
Jane Payland’s eyelids drooped before the serious and penetrating gaze of her mistress.
“You may feel sure of my being faithful, ma’am,” she answered, promptly; “and as to curiosity, I should be the very last creature upon this earth to try to pry into your secrets.”
Honoria made no reply to this protestation. She took her tea in silence, and seemed as if weighed down by grave and anxious thoughts. After tea she dismissed Jane, who retired to the bed-room allotted to her, which had been made very comfortable, and enlivened by a wood fire, that blazed cheerily in the wide grate.
Jane Payland’s bedroom opened out of a corridor, at the end of which was the door of the sitting-room occupied by Honoria. Jane was, therefore, able to keep watch upon all who went to and fro from the sitting-room to the other part of the house. She sat with her door a little way open for this purpose.
“My lady expects some one to-night, I know,” she thought to herself, as she seated herself at a little table, and began some piece of fancy~work.
She had observed that during tea Lady Eversleigh had twice looked at her watch. Why should she be so anxious about the time, if she were not awaiting some visitor, or message, or letter?
For a long time Jane Payland waited, and watched, and listened, without avail. No one went along the corridor to the blue parlour, except the chambermaid who removed the tea-things.
Jane looked at her own watch, and found that it was past nine o’clock. “Surely my lady can have no visitor to-night?” she thought.
A quarter of an hour after this, she was startled by the creaking sound of a footstep on the uncarpeted floor of the corridor. She rose hastily and softly from her chair, crept to the door, and peeped put into the passage. As she did so, she saw a man approaching, dressed like a countryman, in a clumsy frieze coat, and with his chin so muffled in a woollen scarf, and his felt hat drawn so low over his eyes, that there was nothing visible of him but the end of a long nose.
That long, beak-like nose seemed strangely familiar to Miss Payland; and yet she could not tell where she had seen it before.
The countryman went straight to the blue parlour, opened the door, and went in. The door closed behind him, and then Jane Payland heard the faint sound of voices within the apartment.
It was evident that this countryman was Lady Eversleigh’s expected guest.
Jane’s wonderment was redoubled by this extraordinary proceeding.
“What does it all mean?” she asked herself. “Is this man some humble relation of my lady’s? Everyone knows that her birth was obscure; but no one can tell where she came from. Perhaps this is her native place, and it is to see her own people she comes here.”
Jane was obliged to be satisfied with this explanation, for no other was within her reach; but it did not altogether allay her curiosity. The interview between Lady Eversleigh and her visitor was a long one. It was half-past ten o’clock before the strange-looking countryman quitted the blue parlour.
This occurred three days before Christmas-day. On the following evening another stranger arrived at Frimley by the mail-coach, which passed through the quiet town at about seven o’clock.
This traveller did not patronise the “Rose and Crown” inn, though the coach changed horses at that hostelry. He alighted from the outside of the coach while it stood before the door of the “Rose and Crown,” waited until his small valise had been fished out of the boot, and then departed through the falling snow, carrying this valise, which was his only luggage.
He walked at a rapid pace to the other end of the long, straggling street, where there was a humbler inn, called the “Cross Keys.” Here he entered, and asked for a bed-room, with a good fire, and something or other in the way of supper.
It was not till he had entered the room that the traveller took off the rough outer coat, the collar of which had almost entirely concealed his face. When he did so, he revealed the sallow countenance of Victor Carrington, and the flashing black eyes, which to-night shone with a peculiar brightness.
After he had eaten a hasty meal, he went out into the inn-yard, despite the fast-falling snow, to smoke a cigar, he said, to one of the servants whom he encountered on his way.
He had not been long in the yard, when a man emerged from one of the adjacent buildings, and approached him in a slow and stealthy manner.
“All right, guv’nor,” said the man, in a low voice; “I’ve been on the look-out for you for the last two days.”
The man was Jim Hawkins, Mr. Spavin’s groom.
“Is ‘Wild Buffalo’ here?” asked Victor.
“Yes, sir; as safe and as comfortable as if he’d been foaled here.”
“And none the worse for his journey?”
“Not a bit of it, sir. I brought him down by easy stages, knowing you wanted him kept fresh. And fresh he is — oncommon. P’raps you’d like to have a look at him.”
The groom led Mr. Carrington to a loose box, and the surgeon had the pleasure of beholding the bay horse by the uncertain light of a stable lantern.
The animal was, indeed, a noble specimen of his race.
It was only in the projecting eye-ball, the dilated nostril, the defiant carriage of the head, that his evil temper exhibited itself. Victor Carrington stood at a little distance from him, contemplating him in silence for some minutes.
“Have you ever noticed that spot?” asked Victor, presently, pointing to the white patch inside the animal’s hock.
“Well, sir, one can’t help noticing it when one knows where to look for it, though p’raps a stranger mightn’t see it. That there spot’s a kind of a blemish, you see, to my mind; for, if it wasn’t for that, the brute wouldn’t have a white hair about him.”
“That’s just what I’ve been thinking,” answered Victor. “Now, my friend is just the sort of man to turn up his nose at a horse with anything in the way of a blemish about him, especially if he sees it before he has tried the animal, and found out his merits. But I’ve hit upon a plan for getting the better of him, and I want you to carry it out for me.”
“I’m your man, guv’nor, whatever it is.”
The surgeon produced a phial from his pocket, and with the phial a small painters’ brush.
“In this bottle there’s a brown dye,” he said; “and I want you to paint the white spot with that brown dye after you’ve groomed the ‘Buffalo,’ so that whenever my friend comes to claim the horse the brute may be ready for him. You must apply the dye three or four times, at short intervals. It’s a pretty fast one, and it’ll take a good many pails of water to wash it out.”
Jim Hawkins laughed heartily at the idea of this manoeuvre.
“Why you are a rare deep one, guv’nor,” he exclaimed; “that there game is just like the canary dodge, what they do so well down Seven Dials way. You ketches yer sparrer, and you paints him a lively yeller, and then you sells him to your innocent customer for the finest canary as ever wabbled in the grove — a little apt to be mopish at first, but warranted to sing beautiful as soon as ever he gets used to his new master and missus. And, oh! don’t he just sing beautiful — not at all neither.”
“There’s the bottle, Hawkins, and there’s the brush. You know what you’ve got to do.”
“All right, guv’nor.”
“Good night, then,” said Victor, as he left the stable.
He did not stay to finish his cigar under the fast-falling snow; but walked back to his own room, where he slept soundly.
He was astir very early the next morning. He went down stairs, after breakfasting in his own room, saw the landlord, and hired a good strong horse, commonly used by the proprietor of the “Cross Keys” on all his journeys to and from the market-town and outlying villages.
Victor Carrington mounted this horse, and rode across the Common to the village of Hallgrove.
He stopped to give his horse a drink of water before a village inn, and while stopping to do this he asked a few questions of the ostler.
“Whereabouts is Hallgrove Rectory?” he asked.
“About a quarter of a mile farther on, sir,” answered the man; “you can’t miss it if you keep along that road. A big red house, by the side of a river.”
“Thanks. This is a great place for hunting, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that it be, sir. The Horsley foxhounds are a’most allus meeting somewheres about here.”
“When do they meet next?”
“The day arter to-morrow — Boxing-day, sir. They’re to meet in the field by Hallgrove Ferry, a mile and a quarter beyond the rectory, at ten o’clock in the morning. It’s to be a reg’lar grand day’s sport, I’ve heard say. Our rector is to ride a new horse, wot’s been given to him by his brother.”
“Yes, sir; I war down at the rectory stables yesterday arternoon, and see the animal — a splendid bay, rising sixteen hands.”
Carrington turned his horse’s head in the direction of Hallgrove Rectory. He knew enough of the character of Lionel Dale to be aware that no opposition would be made to his loitering about the premises. He rode boldly up to the door, and asked for the rector. He was out, the servant said, but would the gentleman walk in and wait, or would he leave his name. Mr. Dale would be in soon; he had gone out with Captain and Miss Graham. Victor Carrington smiled involuntarily as he heard mention made of Lydia. “So you are here, too,” he thought; “it is just as well you should not see me on this occasion, as I am not helping your game now, as I did in the case of Sir Oswald, but spoiling it.”
No, the stranger gentleman thanked the man; he would not wait to see Mr. Dale (he had carefully ascertained that he was out before riding up to the house); but if the servant would show him the way, he would be glad, to get out on the lower road; he understood the rectory grounds opened upon it, at a little distance from the house. Certainly the man could show him — nothing easier, if the gentleman would take the path to the left, and the turn by the shrubbery, he would pass by the stables, and the lower road lay straight before him. Victor Carrington complied with these directions, but his after-conduct did not bear out the impression of his being in a hurry, which his words and manner had conveyed to the footman. It was at least an hour after he had held the above-mentioned colloquy, when Victor Carrington, having made himself thoroughly acquainted with the topography of the rector’s premises, issued from a side-gate, and took the lower road, leading back to Frimley.
Then he went straight to the stable-yard, saw Mr. Spavin’s groom, and dismissed him.
“I shall take the ‘Buffalo’ down to my friend’s place this afternoon,” he said to Hawkins. “Here’s your money, and you can get back to London as soon as you like. I think my friend will be very well pleased with his bargain.”
“Ay, ay,” said Mr. Hawkins, whose repeated potations of execrable brandy had rendered him tolerably indifferent to all that passed around him, and who was actuated by no other feeling than a lively desire to obtain, the future favours of a liberal employer; “he’s got to take care of hisself, and we’ve got to take care of ourselves, and that’s all about it.”
And then Mr. Hawkins, with something additional to the stipulated reward in his pocket, and a pint bottle of his favourite stimulant to refresh him on the way, took himself off, and Carrington saw no more of him. The people about the inn saw very little of Carrington, but it was with some surprise that the ostler received his directions to saddle the horse which stood in the stable, just when the last gleam of the short winter’s daylight was dying out on Christmas-day. Carrington had not stirred beyond the precincts of the inn all the morning and afternoon. The strange visitor was all uninfluenced either by the devotional or the festive aspects of the season. He was quite alone, and as he sat in his cheerless little bedroom at the small country inn, and brooded, now over a pocket volume, thickly noted in his small, neat handwriting, now over the plans which were so near their accomplishment, he exulted in that solitude — he gave loose to the cynicism which was the chief characteristic of his mind. He cursed the folly of the idiots for whom Christmas-time had any special meaning, and secretly worshipped his own idols — money and power.
The horse was brought to him, and Carrington mounted him without any difficulty, and rode away in the gathering gloom. “Wild Buffalo” gave him no trouble, and he began to feel some misgivings as to the truth of the exceedingly bad character he had received with the animal. Supposing he should not be the unmanageable devil he was represented — supposing all his schemes came to grief, what then? Why, then, there were other ways of getting rid of Lionel Dale, and he should only be the poorer by the purchase of a horse. On the other hand, “Wild Buffalo,” plodding along a heavy country road, almost in the dark, and after the probably not too honestly dispensed feeding of a village inn, which Carrington had not personally superintended, was no doubt a very different animal to what he might be expected to prove himself in the hunting-field. Pondering upon these probabilities, Victor Carrington rode slowly on towards Hallgrove. He had taken accurate observations; he had nicely calculated time and place. All the servants, tenants, and villagers were gathered together under Lionel Dale’s hospitable roof. To the feasting had succeeded games and story-telling, and the absorbing gossip of such a reunion. That which Victor Carrington had come to do, he did successfully; and when he returned to his inn, and gave over his horse to the care of the ostler, no one but he, not even the man who was there listening to every word spoken among the servants at the rectory, and eagerly scanning every face there, knew that “Niagara” was in the inn-stable, and “Wild Buffalo” in the stall at Hallgrove.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50