All through the night the drizzling rain fell fast, and on the morning of the 26th, when the gentlemen at the manor-house rectory went to their windows to look out upon the weather, they were gratified by finding that southerly wind and cloudy sky so dear to the heart of a huntsman.
At half-past eight o’clock the whole party assembled in the dining~room, where breakfast was prepared.
Many gentlemen living in the neighbourhood had been invited to breakfast at the rectory; and the great quadrangle of the stables was crowded by grooms and horses, gigs and phaetons, while the clamour of many voices rang out upon the still air.
Every one seemed to be thoroughly happy — except Reginald Eversleigh. He was amongst the noisiest of the talkers, the loudest of the laughers; but the rector, who watched him closely, perceived that his face was pale, his eyes heavy as the eyes of one who had passed a sleepless night, and that his laughter was loud without mirth, his talk boisterous, without real cheerfulness of spirit.
“There is mischief of some kind in that man’s heart,” Lionel said to himself. “Can there be any truth in the gipsy’s warning after all?”
But in the next moment he was ready to fancy himself the weak dupe of his own imagination.
“I dare say my cousin’s manner is but what it always is,” he thought; “the weary manner of a man who has wasted his youth, and sacrificed all the brilliant chances of his life, and who, even in the hour of pleasure and excitement, is oppressed by a melancholy which he strives in vain to shake off.”
The gathering at the breakfast-table was a brilliant one.
Lydia Graham was a superb horsewoman; and in no costume did she look more attractive than in her exquisitely fitting habit of dark blue cloth. The early hour of the meet justified her breakfasting in riding~costume; and gladly availing herself of this excuse, she made her appearance in her habit, carrying her pretty little riding-hat and dainty whip in her hand.
Her cheeks were flushed with a rich bloom — the warm flush of excitement and the consciousness of success. Lionel’s attention on the previous evening had seemed to her unmistakeable; and again this morning she saw admiration, if not a warmer feeling, in his gaze.
“And so you really mean to follow the hounds, Miss Graham?” said Mrs. Mordaunt, with something like a shudder.
She had a great horror of fast young ladies, and a lurking aversion to Miss Graham, whose dashing manner and more brilliant charms quite eclipsed the quiet graces of the lady’s two daughters. Mrs. Mordaunt was by no means a match-making mother; but she would have been far from sorry to see Lionel Dale devoted to one of her girls.
“Do I mean to follow the hounds?” cried Lydia. “Certainly I do, Mrs. Mordaunt. Do not the Misses Mordaunt ride?”
“Never to hounds,” answered the matron. “They ride with, their father constantly, and when they are in London they ride in the park; but Mr. Mordaunt would not allow his daughters to appear in the hunting-field.”
Lydia’s face flushed crimson with anger; but her anger changed to delight when Lionel Dale came to the rescue.
“It is only such accomplished horsewomen as Miss Graham who can ride to hounds with safety,” he said. “Your daughters ride very well, Mrs. Mordaunt; but they are not Diana Vernons.”
“I never particularly admired the character of Diana Vernon,” Mrs. Mordaunt answered, coldly.
Lydia Graham was by no means displeased by the lady’s discourtesy. She accepted it as a tribute to her success. The mother could not bear to see so rich a prize as the rector of Hallgrove won by any other than her own daughter.
Douglas Dale was full of his brother’s new horse, “Niagara,” which had been paraded before the windows. The gentlemen of the party had all examined the animal, and pronounced him a beauty.
“Did you try him last week, Lionel, as I requested you to do?” asked Douglas, when the merits of the horse had been duly discussed.
“I did; and I found him as fine a temper as any horse I ever rode. I rode him twice — he is a magnificent animal.”
“And safe, eh, Lio?” asked Douglas, anxiously. “Spavin assured me the horse was to be relied on, and Spavin is a very respectable fellow; but it’s rather a critical matter to choose a hunter for a brother, and I shall be glad when to-day’s work is over.”
“Have no fear, Douglas,” answered the rector. “I am generally considered a bold rider, but I would not mount a horse I couldn’t thoroughly depend upon; for I am of opinion that a man has no right to tempt Providence.”
As he said this, he happened by chance to look towards Reginald Eversleigh. The eyes of the cousins met; and Lionel saw that those of the baronet had a restless, uneasy look, which was utterly unlike their usual expression.
“There is some meaning in that old woman’s dark hints of wrong and treachery,” he thought; “there must be. That was no common look which I saw just now in my cousin’s eyes.”
The horses were brought round to the principal door; a barouche had been ordered for Mrs. Mordaunt and the two young ladies, who had no objection to exhibit their prettiest winter bonnets at the general meeting-place.
The snow had melted, except here and there, where it still lay in great patches; and on the distant hills, which still wore their pure white shroud.
The roads and lanes were fetlock-deep in mud, and the horses went splashing through pools of water, which spurted up into the faces of the riders.
There was only one lady besides Lydia Graham who intended to accompany the huntsmen, and this lady was the dashing young wife of a cavalry officer, who was spending a month’s leave of absence with his relatives at Hallgrove.
The hunting-party rode out of the rectory gates in twos and threes. All had passed out into the high road before the rector himself, who was mounted on his new hunter.
To his extreme surprise he found a difficulty in managing the animal. He reared, and jibbed, and shied from side to side upon the broad carriage-drive, splashing the melted snow and wet gravel upon the rector’s dark hunting-coat.
“So ho, ‘Niagara,’” said Lionel, patting the animal’s arched neck; “gently, boy, gently.”
His voice, and the caressing touch of his hand seemed to have some little effect, for the horse consented to trot quietly into the road, after the rest of the party, and Lionel quickly overtook his friends. He rode shoulder by shoulder with Squire Mordaunt, an acknowledged judge of horseflesh, who watched the rector’s hunter with a curious gaze for some minutes.
“I’ll tell you what it is, Dale,” he said, “I don’t believe that horse of yours is a good-tempered animal.”
“You do not?”
“No, there’s a dangerous look in his eye that I don’t at all like. See how he puts his ears back every now and then; and his nostrils have an ugly nervous quiver. I wish you’d let your man bring you another horse, Dale. We’re likely to be crossing some stiffish timber to-day; and, upon my word, I’m rather suspicious of that brute you’re riding.”
“My dear squire, I have tested the horse to the uttermost,” answered Lionel. “I can positively assure you there is not the slightest ground for apprehension. The animal is a present from my brother, and Douglas would be annoyed if I rode any other horse.”
“He would be more annoyed if you came to any harm by a horse of his choosing,” answered the squire. “However I’ll say no more. If you know the animal, that’s enough. I know you to be both a good rider and a good judge of a horse.”
“Thank you heartily for your advice, notwithstanding, squire,” replied Lionel, cheerily; “and now I think I’ll ride on and join the ladies.”
He broke into a canter, and presently was riding by the side of Miss Graham, who did not fail to praise the beauty of “Niagara” in a manner calculated to win the heart of Niagara’s rider.
In the exhilarating excitement of the start, Lionel Dale had forgotten alike the gipsy’s warning and those vague doubts of his cousin Reginald which had been engendered by that warning. He was entirely absorbed by the pleasure of the hour, happy to see his friends gathered around him, and excited by the prospect of a day’s sport.
The meeting-place was crowded with horsemen and carriages, country squires and their sons, gentlemen-farmers on sleek hunters, and humbler tenant-farmers on their stiff cobs, butchers and innkeepers, all eager for the chase. All was life, gaiety excitement, noise; the hounds, giving forth occasional howls and snappish yelpings, expressive of an impatience that was almost beyond endurance; the huntsman cracking his whip, and reproving his charges in language more forcible than polite; the spirited horses pawing the ground; the gentlemen exchanging the compliments of the season with the ladies who had come up to see the hounds throw off.
At last the important moment arrived, the horn sounded, the hounds broke away with a rush, and the business of the day had begun.
Again the rector’s horse was seized with sudden obstinacy, and again the rector found it as much as he could do to manage him. An inferior horseman would have been thrown in that sharp and short struggle between horse and rider; but Lionel’s firm hand triumphed over the animal’s temper for the time at least; and presently he was hurrying onward at a stretching gallop, which speedily carried him beyond the ruck of riders.
As he skimmed like a bird over the low flat meadows, Lionel began to think that the horse was an acquisition, in spite of the sudden freaks of temper which had made him so difficult to manage at starting.
A horseman who had not joined the hunt, who had dexterously kept the others in sight, sheltering himself from observation under the fringe of the wood which crowned a small hill in the neighbourhood of the meet, was watching all the evolutions of Lionel Dale’s horse closely through a small field-glass, and soon, perceived that the animal was beyond the rider’s skill to manage. The stretching gallop which had reassured Mr. Dale soon carried the rector beyond the watcher’s ken, and then, as the hunt was out of sight too, he turned his horse from the shelter he had so carefully selected, and rode straight across country in an opposite direction.
In little more than half an hour after the horseman who had watched Lionel Dale so closely left the post of observation, a short man, mounted on a stout pony, which had evidently been urged along at unusual speed, came along the road, which wound around the hill already mentioned. This individual wore a heavy, country-made coat, and leather leggings, and had a handkerchief tied over his hat. This very unbecoming appendage was stained with blood on the side which covered the right cheek and the wearer was plentifully daubed and bespattered with mud, his sturdy little steed being in a similar condition. As he urged the pony on, his sharp, crafty eyes kept up an incessant scrutiny, in which his beak-like nose seemed to take an active part. But there was nothing to reward the curiosity, amounting to anxiety, with which the short man surveyed the wintry scene around. All was silent and empty. If the horseman had designed to see and speak with any member of the hunting-party, he had come too late. He recognized the fact very soon, and very discontentedly. Without being so great a genius, as he believed and represented himself, Mr. Andrew Larkspur was really a very clever and a very successful detective, and he had seldom been foiled in a better-laid plan than that which had induced him to follow Lionel Dale to the meet on this occasion. But he had not calculated on precisely the exact kind of accident which had befallen him, and when he found himself thrown violently from his pony, in the middle of a road at once hard, sloppy, and newly-repaired with very sharp stones, he was both hurt and angry. It did not take him a great deal of time to get the pony on its legs, and shake himself to rights again; but the delay, brief as it was, was fatal to his hopes of seeing Lionel Dale. The meet had taken place, the hunt was in full progress, far away, and Mr. Andrew Larkspur had nothing for it but to sit forlornly for awhile upon the muddy pony, indulging in meditations of no pleasant character, and then ride disconsolately back to Frimley.
In the meantime, Nemesis, who had perversely pleased herself by thwarting the designs of Mr. Larkspur, had hurried those of Victor Carrington towards fulfilment with incredible speed. He had ridden at a speed, and for some time in a direction which would, he calculated, bring him within sight of the hunt, and had just crossed a bridge which traversed a narrow but deep and rapid river, about three miles distant from the place where he Andrew Larkspur had taken sad counsel with himself, when he heard the sound of a horse’s approach, at a thundering, apparently wholly ungoverned pace. A wild gleam of triumphant expectation, of deadly murderous hope, lit up his pale features, as he turned his horse, rendered restive by the noise of the distant galloping, into a field, close by the road, dismounted, and tied him firmly to a tree. The hedge, though bare of leaves, was thick and high, and in the angle which it formed with the tree, the animal was completely hidden.
In a moment after Victor Carrington had done this, and while he crouched down and looked through the hedge, Lionel Dale appeared in sight, borne madly along by his unmanageable horse, as he dashed heedlessly down the road, his rider holding the bridle indeed, but breathless, powerless, his head uncovered, and one of his stirrup~leathers broken. Victor Carrington’s heart throbbed violently, and a film came over his eyes. Only for a moment, however; in the next his sight cleared, and he saw the furious animal, frightened by a sudden plunge made by the horse tied to the tree, swerve suddenly from the road, and dash at the swollen, tumbling river. The horse plunged in a little below the bridge. The rider was thrown out of the saddle head foremost. His head struck with a dull thud against the rugged trunk of an ash which hung over the water, and he sank below the brown, turbid stream. Then Victor Carrington emerged from his hiding-place, and rushed to the brink of the water. No sign of the rector was to be seen; and midway across, the horse, snorting and terrified, was struggling towards the opposite bank. In a moment Carrington, drawing something from his breast as he went, had run across the bridge, and reached the spot where the animal was now attempting to scramble up the steep bank. As Carrington came up, he had got his fore-feet within a couple of feet of the top, and was just making good his footing below; but the surgeon, standing close upon the brink, a little to the right of the struggling brute, stooped down and shot him through the forehead. The huge carcase fell crashing heavily down, and was sucked under, and whirled away by the stream. Victor Carrington placed the pistol once more in his breast, and for some time stood quite motionless gazing oh the river. Then he turned away, saying —
“They’ll hardly look for him below the bridge — I should say the fox ran west;” and he letting loose the horse he had ridden, walked along the road until he reached the turn at which Lionel Dale had come in sight. There he found the unfortunate rector’s hat, as he had hoped he might find it, and having carried it back, he placed it on the brink of the river, and then once more mounted him, and rode, not at any remarkable speed, in the opposite direction to that in which Hallgrove lay.
His reflections were of a satisfactory kind. He had succeeded, and he cared for nothing but success. When he thought of Sir Reginald Eversleigh, a contemptuous smile crossed his pale lips. “To work for such a creature as that,” he said to himself, “would indeed be degrading; but he is only an accident in the case — I work for myself.”
Victor Carrington had discharged his score at the inn that morning, and sent his valise to London by coach. When the night fell, he took the saddle off his horse, steeped it in the river, replaced it, quietly turned the animal loose, and abandoning him to his fate, made his way to a solitary public-house some miles from Hallgrove, where he had given a conditional, uncertain sort of rendezvous to Sir Reginald Eversleigh.
The night had closed in upon the returning huntsmen as they rode homewards. Not a star glimmered in the profound darkness of the sky. The moon had not yet risen, and all was chill and dreary in the early winter night.
Miss Graham, her brother Gordon, and Sir Reginald Eversleigh rode abreast as they approached the manor-house. Lydia had been struck by the silence of Sir Reginald, but she attributed that silence to fatigue. Her brother, too, was silent; nor did Lydia herself care to talk. She was thinking of her triumphs of the previous evening, and of that morning. She was thinking of the tender pressure with which the rector had clasped her hand as he bade her good-night; the soft expression of his eyes as they dwelt on her face, with a long, earnest gaze. She was thinking of his tender care of her when she mounted her horse, the gentle touch of his hand as he placed the reins in hers. Could she doubt that she was beloved?
She did not doubt. A thrill of delight ran through her veins as she thought of the sweet certainty; but it was not the pure delight of a simple-hearted girl who loves and finds herself beloved. It was the triumph of a hard and worldly woman, who has devoted the bright years of her girlhood to ambitious dreams; and who, at last, has reason to believe that they are about to be realized.
“Five thousand a year,” she thought; “it is little, after all, compared to the fortune that would have been mine had I been lucky enough to captivate Sir Oswald Eversleigh. It is little compared to the wealth enjoyed by that low-born and nameless creature, Sir Oswald’s widow. But it is much for one who has drained poverty’s bitter cup to the very dregs as I have. Yes, to the dregs; for though I have never known the want of life’s common necessaries, I have known humiliations which are at least as hard to bear.”
The many windows of the manor-house were all a-blaze with light as the hunting-party entered the gates. Fires burned brightly in all the rooms, and the interior of that comfortable house formed a very pleasant contrast to the cheerless darkness of the night, the muddy roads, and damp atmosphere.
The butler stood in the hall ready to welcome the returning guests with stately ceremony; while the under-servants bustled about, attending to the wants of the mud-bespattered huntsmen.
“Mr. Dale is at home, I suppose?” Douglas said, as he warmed his hands before the great wood fire.
“At home, sir!” replied the butler; “hasn’t he come home with you, sir?”
“No; we never saw him after the meet. I imagine he must have been called away on parish business.”
“I don’t know, sir,” answered the butler; “my master has certainly not been home since the morning.”
A feeling of vague alarm took possession of almost everyone present.
“It is very strange,” exclaimed Squire Mordaunt. “Did no one come here to inquire after your master this morning?”
“No one, sir,” replied the butler.
“Send to the stables to see if my brother’s horse has been brought home,” cried Douglas, with alarm very evident in his face and manner. “Or, stay, I will go myself.”
He ran out of the hall, and in a few moments returned.
“The horse has not been brought back,” he cried; “there must be something wrong.”
“Stop,” cried the squire; “pray, my dear Mr. Douglas Dale, do not let us give way to unnecessary alarm. There may be no cause whatever for fear or agitation. If Mr. Dale was summoned away from the hunt to attend the bed of a dying parishioner, he would be the last man to think of sending his horse home, or to count the hours which he devoted to his duty.”
“But he would surely send a messenger here to prevent the alarm which his absence would be likely to cause amongst us all,” replied Douglas; “do not let us deceive ourselves, Mr. Mordaunt. There is something wrong — an accident of some kind has happened to my brother. Andrews, order fresh horses to be saddled immediately. If you will ride one way, squire, I will take another road, first stopping in the village to make all possible inquires there. Reginald, you will help us, will you not?”
“With all my heart,” answered Reginald, with energy, but in a voice which was thick and husky.
Douglas Dale looked at his cousin, startled, even in the midst of his excitement, by the strange tone of Reginald’s voice.
“Great heavens! how ghastly pale you look, Reginald!” he cried; “you apprehend some great misfortune — some dreadful accident?”
“I scarcely know,” gasped the baronet; “but I own that I feel considerable alarm — the — the river — the current was so strong after the thaw — the stream so swollen by melted snow. If — if Lionel’s horse should have tried to swim the river — and failed —”
“And we are lingering here!” cried Douglas, passionately; “lingering here and talking, instead of acting! Are those horses ready there?” he shouted, rushing out to the portico.
His voice was heard in the darkness without, urging on the grooms as they led out fresh horses from the quadrangle.
“Gordon!” cried Lydia Graham, “you will go out with the others. You will do your uttermost in the search for Mr. Lionel Dale!”
She said this in a loud, ringing voice, with the imperious tone of a woman accustomed to command. She was leaning against one angle of the great chimney-piece, pale as ashes, breathless, but not fainting. To her, the idea that any calamity had befallen Lionel Dale was very dreadful — almost as dreadful as it could be to the brother who so truly loved him; for her own interest was involved in this man’s life, and with her that was ever paramount.
She was well-nigh fainting; but she was too much a woman of the world not to know that if she had given way to her emotion at that moment, she would have given rise to disgust and annoyance, rather than interest, in the minds of the gentlemen present. She knew this, and she wished to please every one; for in pleasing the many lies the secret of a woman’s success with the few.
Even in that moment of confusion and excitement, the scheming woman determined to stand well in the eyes of Douglas Dale.
As he appeared on the threshold of the great hall-door, she went up to him very quietly, with her head uncovered, and her pale, clearly-cut face revealed by the light of the lamp above her. She laid her hand gently on the young man’s arm.
“Mr. Dale.” she said, “command my brother Gordon; he will be proud to obey you. I will go out myself to aid in the search, if you will let me do so.”
Douglas Dale clasped her hand in both his with grateful emotion.
“You are a noble girl,” he cried; “but you cannot help me in this. Your brother Gordon may, perhaps, and I will call upon his friendship without reserve. And now leave us, Miss Graham; this is no fitting scene for a lady. Come, gentlemen!” he exclaimed, “the horses are ready. I go by the village, and thence to the river; you will each take different roads, and will all meet me on the river-bank, at the spot where we crossed to-day.”
In less than five minutes all had mounted, and the trampling of hoofs announced their departure. Reginald was amongst them, hardly conscious of the scene or his companions.
Sight, hearing, perception of himself, and of the world around him, all seemed annihilated. He rode on through dense black shadows, dark clouds which hemmed him in on every side, as if a gigantic pall had fallen from heaven to cover him.
How he became separated from his companions he never knew; but when his senses awoke from that dreadful stupor, he found himself alone, on a common, and in the far distance he saw the glimmer of lights — very feeble and wan beneath the starless sky.
It seemed as if the horse knew his desolate ground, and was going straight towards these lights. The animal belonged to the rector, and was, no doubt, familiar with the country.
Reginald Eversleigh had just sufficient consciousness of surrounding circumstances to remember this. He made no attempt to guide the horse. What did it matter whither he went? He had forgotten his promise to meet the other men on the river-brink; he had forgotten everything, except that the work of a demon had progressed in silence, and that its fatal issue was about to burst like a thunder-clap upon him.
“Victor Carrington has told me that this fortune shall be mine; he has failed once, but will not fail always,” he said to himself.
The disappearance of Lionel Dale had struck like a thunderbolt on the baronet; but it was a thunderbolt whose falling he had anticipated with shuddering horror during every day and every hour since his arrival at Hallgrove.
The lights grew more distinct — feeble lamps in a village street, glimmering candles in cottage windows scattered here and there. The horse reached the edge of the common and turned into a high road. Five minutes afterwards Reginald Eversleigh found himself at the beginning of a little country town.
Lights were burning cheerily in the windows of an inn. The door was open, and from within there came the sound of voices that rang out merrily on the night air.
“Great heaven!” exclaimed Reginald, “how happy these peasants are — these brutish creatures who have no care beyond their daily bread!”
He envied them; and at that moment would have exchanged places with the humblest field-labourer carousing in the rustic tap-room. But it was only now and then the anguish of a guilty conscience took this shape. He was a man who loved the pleasures and luxuries of this world better than he loved peace of mind; better than he loved his own soul.
He drew rein before the inn-door, and called to the people within. A man came out, and took the bridle as he dismounted.
“What is the name of this place?” he asked.
“Frimley, sir — Frimley Common it’s called by rights. But folks call it Frimley for short.”
“How far am I from the river-bank at the bottom of Thorpe Hill?”
“A good six miles, sir.”
“Take my horse and rub him down. Give him a pail of gruel and a quart of oats. I shall want to start again in less than an hour.”
“Sharp work, sir,” answered the ostler. “Your horse seems to have done plenty already.”
“That is my business,” said Sir Reginald, haughtily.
He went into the inn.
“Is there a room in which I can dry my coat?” he asked at the bar.
He had only lately become aware of a drizzling rain which had been falling, and had soaked through his hunting-coat.
“Were you with the Horsely hounds to-day, sir?” asked the landlord.
“Good sport, sir?”
“No,” answered Sir Reginald, curtly.
“Show the way to the parlour, Jane,” said the landlord to a chambermaid, or barmaid, or girl-of-all-work, who emerged from the tap~room with a tray of earthenware mugs. “There’s one gentleman there, sir; but perhaps you won’t object to that, Christmas being such a particularly busy time,” added the landlord, addressing Reginald. “You’ll find a good fire.”
“Send me some brandy,” returned Sir Reginald, without deigning to make any further reply to the landlord’s apologetic speech.
He followed the girl, who led the way to a door at the end of a passage, which she opened, and ushered Sir Reginald into a light and comfortable room.
Before a large, old-fashioned fire-place sat a man, with his face hidden by the newspaper which he was reading.
Sir Reginald Eversleigh did not condescend to look at this stranger. He walked straight to the hearth; took off his dripping coat, and hung it on a chair by the side of the roaring wood fire. Then he flung himself into another chair, drew it close to the fender, and sat staring at the fire, with a gloomy face, and eyes which seemed to look far away into some dark and terrible region beyond those burning logs.
He sat in this attitude for some time, motionless as a statue, utterly unconscious that his companion was closely watching him from behind the sheltering newspaper. The inn servant brought a tray, bearing a small decanter of brandy and a glass. But the baronet did not heed her entrance, nor did he touch the refreshment for which he had asked.
Not once did he stir till the sudden crackling of his companion’s newspaper startled him, and he lifted his head with an impatient gesture and an exclamation of surprise.
“You are nervous to-night, Sir Reginald Eversleigh,” said the man, whose voice was still hidden by the newspaper.
The sound of the voice in which those common-place words were spoken was, at this moment, of all sounds the most hateful to Reginald Eversleigh.
“You here!” he exclaimed. “But I ought to have known that.”
The newspaper was lowered for the first time; and Reginald Eversleigh found himself face to face with Victor Carrington.
“You ought, indeed, considering I told you you should find me, or hear from me here, at the ‘Wheatsheaf,’ in case you wished to do so, or I wished you should do so either. And I presume you have come by accident, not intentionally. I had no idea of seeing you, especially at an hour when I should have thought you would have been enjoying the hospitality of your kinsman, the rector of Hallgrove.”
“Victor Carrington!” cried Reginald, “are you the fiend himself in human shape? Surely no other creature could delight in crime.”
“I do not delight in crime, Reginald Eversleigh; and it is only a man with your narrow intellect who could give utterance to such an absurdity. Crime is only another name for danger. The criminal stakes his life. I value my life too highly to hazard it lightly. But if I can mould accident to my profit, I should be a fool indeed were I to shrink from doing so. There is one thing I delight in, my dear Reginald, and that is success! And now tell me why you are here to-night?”
“I cannot tell you that,” answered the baronet. “I came hither, unconscious where I was coming. There seems a strange fatality in this. I let my horse choose his own road, and he brought me here to this house — to you, my evil genius.”
“Pray, Sir Reginald, be good enough to drop that high tragedy tone,” said Victor, with supreme coolness. “It is all very well to be addressed by you as a fiend and an evil genius once in a way; but upon frequent repetition, that sort of thing becomes tiresome. You have not told me why you are wandering about the country instead of eating your dinner in a Christian-like manner at the rectory?”
“Do you not know the reason, Carrington?” asked the baronet, gazing fixedly at his companion.
“How should I know anything about it?”
“Because to-day’s work has been your doing,” answered Reginald, passionately; “because you are mixed up in the dark business of this day, as you were mixed up in that still darker treachery at Raynham Castle. I know now why you insisted upon my choosing the horse called ‘Niagara’ for my cousin Lionel; I know now why you were so interested in the appearance of that other horse, which had already caused the death of more than one rider; I know why you are here, and why Lionel Dale has disappeared in the course of the day.”
“He has disappeared!” exclaimed Victor Carrington; “he is not dead?”
“I know nothing but that he has disappeared. We missed him in the midst of the hunt. We returned to the rectory in the evening, expecting to find him there.”
“Did you expect that, Eversleigh?”
“Others did, at any rate.”
“And did you not find him?”
“No. We left the house, after a brief delay, to seek for him; I among the others. We were to ride by different roads; to make inquiries of every kind; to obtain information from every source. My brain was dazed. I let my horse take his own road.”
“Fool! coward!” exclaimed Victor Harrington, with mingled scorn and anger. “And you have abandoned your work; you have come here to waste your time, when you should seem most active in the search — most eager to find the missing man. Reginald Eversleigh, from first to last you have trifled with me. You are a villain; but you are a hypocrite. You would have the reward of guilt, and yet wear the guise of innocence, even before me; as if it were possible to deceive one who has read you through and through. I am tired of this trifling; I am weary of this pretended innocence; and to-night I ask you, for the last time, to choose the path which you mean to tread; and, once chosen, to tread it with a firm step, prepared to meet danger — to confront destiny. This very hour, this very moment, I call upon you to make your decision; and it shall be a final decision. Will you grovel on in poverty — the worst of all poverty, the gentleman’s pittance? or will you make yourself possessor of the wealth which your uncle Oswald bequeathed to others? Look me in the face, Reginald, as you are a man, and answer me, Which is it to be — wealth or poverty?”
“It is too late to answer poverty,” replied the baronet, in a gloomy and sullen tone. “You cannot bring my uncle back to life; you cannot undo your work.”
“I do not pretend to bring the dead to life. I am not talking of the past — I am talking of the future.”
“Suppose I say that I will endure poverty rather than plunge deeper into the pit you have dug — what then?”
“In that case, I will bid you good speed, and leave you to your poverty and — a clear conscience,” answered Victor, coolly. “I am a poor man myself; but I like my friends to be rich. If you do not care to grasp the wealth which might be yours, neither do I care to preserve our acquaintance. So we have merely to bid each other good night, and part company.”
There was a pause — Reginald Eversleigh sat with his arms folded, his eyes fixed on the fire. Victor watched him with a sinister smile upon his face.
“And if I choose to go on,” said Reginald, at last; “if I choose to tread farther on the dark road which I have trodden so long — what then? Can you ensure me success, Victor Carrington?”
“I can,” replied the Frenchman.
“Then I will go on. Yes; I will be your slave, your tool, your willing coadjutor in crime and treachery; anything to obtain at last the heritage out of which I have been cheated.”
“Enough! You have made your decision. Henceforward let me hear no repinings, no hypocritical regrets. And now, order your horse, gallop back as fast as you can to the neighbourhood of Hallgrove, and show yourself foremost amongst those who seek for Lionel Dale.”
“Yes, yes; I will obey you — I will shake off this miserable hesitation. I will make my nature iron, as you have made yours.”
Sir Reginald rang, and ordered his horse to be brought round to the door of the inn.
“Where and when shall I see you again?” he asked Victor, as he was putting on the coat which had hung before the fire to be dried.
“In London, when you return there.”
“You leave here soon?”
“To-morrow morning. You will write to me by to-morrow night’s post to tell me all that has occurred in the interval.”
“I will do so,” answered Reginald.
“Good, and now go; you have already been too long out of the way of those who should have witnessed your affectionate anxiety about your cousin.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50