Reginald mounted his horse, questioned the ostler respecting the way to the appointed spot on the river-bank, and rode away in the direction indicated. He had no difficulty in discovering the scene of the appointed meeting. The light of the torches in the hands of the searchers guided him to the spot.
Here he found gentlemen and grooms, huntsmen and farmers, on horseback, riding up and down the river-bank; some carrying lighted torches, whose lurid glare shone red against the darkness of the night; all busy, all excited.
Amongst these the baronet found Douglas Dale, who rode up to meet his cousin, as the other approached.
“Any news, Reginald?” he asked, in a voice that was hoarse with fatigue and excitement.
“None,” answered Sir Reginald: “I have ridden miles, and made many inquiries, but have been able to discover no traces. Have you no tidings?”
“None but evil ones,” replied Douglas Dale, in a tone of despair “we have found a battered hat on the edge of the river — hat which my brother’s valet identifies as that worn by his master. We fear the worst, Reginald — the very worst. All inquiries have been made in the village, at every farm-house in the parish, and far beyond the parish. My brother has been seen nowhere. Since we rode down the hill, it seems as if no human eye had rested on him. In that moment he vanished as utterly as if the earth had opened to swallow him up alive.”
“What is it that you fear?”
“We fear that he tried to cross the river at some point higher up, where the stream is swollen to a perilous extent, and that both horse and rider were swept away by the current.”
“In that case both horse and rider must be found — alive or dead.”
“Ultimately, perhaps, but not easily,” answered Douglas; “the bed of the stream is a mass of tangled weeds. I have heard Lionel say that men have been drowned in that river whose bodies have never been discovered.”
“It is horrible!” exclaimed Reginald; “but let us still hope for the best. All this may be needless misery.”
“I fear not, Reginald,” answered Douglas; “my brother Lionel is not a man to be careless about giving anxiety to those who love him.”
“I will ride farther along the bank,” said the baronet; “I may hear something.”
“And I will wait here,” replied Douglas, with the dull apathy of despair. “The news of my brother’s death will reach me soon enough.”
Reginald Eversleigh rode on by the river brink, following a group of horsemen carrying torches. Douglas waited, with his ear on the alert to catch every sound, his heart beating tumultuously, in the terrible expectation that each moment would bring him the news he dreaded to hear.
Endless as that interval of expectation and suspense appeared to Douglas Dale, in reality it was not of very long duration. The cold of the winter’s night did not affect him, the burning fever of fear devoured him. Soon he lost sight of the glimmering of the torches, as the bearers followed the bend of the river, and the sound of the men’s voices died out of his ears. But after a while he heard a shout, then another, and then two men came running towards him, as fast as they could in the darkness. Douglas Dale knew them both, and called out, “What is it, Freeman? What is it, Carey? Bad news, I fear.”
“Yes, Mr. Douglas, bad news. We’ve found the rector’s hunting-whip.”
“Where?” stammered Douglas.
“Below the bridge, sir, close by the ash-tree; and the bank is broken. I’m afraid it’s all up, sir; if he went in there, the horse and he are both gone, sir.”
Like a man walking in a dream, Douglas Dale accompanied the bearers of the evil tidings to the spot where the group of searchers was collected together. In the midst stood Squire Mordaunt, holding in his hand a heavy hunting-whip, which all present recognized, and many had seen in the rector’s hand only that morning. They all made way for Douglas Dale; they were very silent now, and hopeless conviction was on every face.
“This makes it too plain, Douglas,” said Squire Mordaunt, as he handed the whip to the rector’s brother; “bear it as well as you can, my dear fellow. There’s nothing to be done now till daylight.”
“Nothing more?” said Reginald, while Douglas covered his face, and groaned in unrestrained anguish; “the drags can surely be used? the —”
“Wait a minute, Sir Reginald,” said the squire, holding up his hand; “of course your impatience is very natural, but it would only defeat itself. To drag the river by torchlight would be equally difficult and vain. It shall be done as soon as ever there is light. Till then, there is nothing for any of us to do but to wait. And first, let us get poor Douglas home.”
Douglas Dale made no resistance; he knew the squire spoke truth and common-sense. The melancholy group broke up, the members of the rectory returned to its desolate walls, and Douglas at once shut himself up in his room, leaving to Sir Reginald Eversleigh and Squire Mordaunt the task of making all the arrangements for the morrow, and communicating to the ladies the dire intelligence which must be imparted.
Early in the morning, Squire Mordaunt went to Douglas Dale’s room. He found him stretched upon the bed in his clothes. He had made no change in his dress, and had evidently intended to prolong his vigil until the morning, but nature had been exhausted, and in spite of himself Douglas? Dale slept. His old friend stole softly from the room, and cautioning the household not to permit him who must now be regarded as their master to be disturbed, he went out, and proceeded to the search.
Douglas Dale did not awake until nine o’clock, and then, starting up with a terrible consciousness of sorrow, and a sense of self-reproach because he had slept, he found Squire Mordaunt standing by his bed. The good old gentleman took the young man’s hand in silence, and pressed it with a pressure which told all.
They laid the disfigured dead body of him who but yesterday had been the beloved and honoured master of the house in the library, where he had received the ineffectual warning of the gipsy. It was while Douglas Dale was contemplating the pale, still features of his brother, with grief unutterable, that a servant tapped gently at the door, and called Mr. Mordaunt out.
“‘Niagara’ is come home, sir,” said the man. “He were found, just now, on the lower road, a-grazing, and he ain’t cut, nor hurt in any way, sir.”
“He’s dirty and wet, I suppose?”
“Well, sir, he’s dirty, certainly; and the saddle is soaking; but he’s pretty dry, considering.”
“Are the girths broken?”
“No, sir, there’s nothing amiss with them.”
“Very well. Take care of the horse, but say nothing about him to Mr. Dale at present.”
The visitors at Hallgrove Rectory had received the intelligence which Sir Reginald Eversleigh had communicated to them with the deepest concern. Arrangements were made for the immediate departure of the Grahams, and of Mrs. Mordaunt and her daughters. The squire and Sir Reginald were to remain with Douglas Dale until the painful formalities of the inquest and the funeral should be completed.
Douglas Dale was not a weak man, and no one more disliked any exhibition of sentiment than he. Nevertheless, it was a hard task for him to enter the breakfast-room, and bid farewell to the guests who had been so merry only yesterday. But it had to be done, and he did it. A few sad and solemn words were spoken between him and the Mordaunts, and the girls left the room in tears. Then he advanced to Lydia Graham, who was seated in an arm-chair by the fire, still, and pale as a marble statue. There were no tears in her eyes, no traces of tears upon her cheeks, but in her heart there was angry, bitter, raging disappointment — almost fury, almost despair.
Douglas Dale could not look at her without seeing that in very truth the event which was so terrible to him was terrible to her also, and his manly heart yearned towards the woman whom he had thought but little of until now; who had perhaps loved, and certainly now was grieving for, his beloved brother.
“Shall we ever meet again, Mr. Dale?” she said, wonderingly.
“Why should we not?”
“You will not be able to endure England, perhaps, after this terrible calamity. You will go abroad. You will seek distraction in change of scene. Men are such travellers now-a-days.”
“I shall not leave England, Miss Graham,” answered Douglas, quietly; “I am a man of the world — I venture to hope that I am also a Christian — and I can nerve myself to endure grief as a Christian and a man of the world should endure it. My brother’s death will make no alteration in the plan of my life. I shall return to London almost immediately.”
“And we may hope to see you in London?”
“Captain Graham and I are members of the same club. We are very likely to meet occasionally.”
“And am I not to see you as well as my brother?” asked Lydia, in a low voice.
“Do you really wish to see me?”
“Can you wonder that I do so — for the sake of old times. We are friends of long standing, remember, Mr. Dale.”
“Yes,” answered Douglas, with marked gravity. “We have known each other for a long time.”
Captain Graham entered the room at this moment.
“The carriage which is to take us to Frimley is ready, Lydia,” he said; “your trunks are all on the roof, and you have only to wish Mr. Dale good-bye.”
“A very sad farewell,” murmured Miss Graham. “I can only trust that we may meet again under happier circumstances.”
“I trust we may,” replied Douglas, earnestly.
Miss Graham was bonneted and cloaked for the journey. She had dressed herself entirely in black, in respectful regard of the melancholy circumstances attending her departure. Nor did she forget that the sombre hue was peculiarly becoming to her. She wore a dress of black silk, a voluminous cloak of black velvet trimmed with sables, and a fashionable bonnet of the same material, with a drooping feather.
Douglas conducted his guests to the carriage, and saw Miss Graham comfortably seated, with her shawls and travelling-bags on the seat opposite.
It was with a glance of mournful tenderness that Miss Graham uttered her final adieu; but there was no responsive glance in the eyes of Douglas Dale. His manner was serious and subdued; but it was a manner not easy to penetrate.
Gordon Graham flung himself back in his seat with a despairing groan.
“Well, Lydia,” he said, “this accident in the hunting-field has been the ruin of all our hopes. I really think you are the most unlucky woman I ever encountered. After angling for something like ten years in the matrimonial fisheries, you were just on the point of landing a valuable fish, and at the last moment your husband that is to be goes and gets drowned during a day’s pleasure.”
“What should you say if this accident, which you think unlucky, should, after all, be a fortunate event for us?” asked Lydia, with significance.
“What the deuce do you mean?”
“How very slow of comprehension you are to-day, Gordon!” exclaimed the lady, impatiently; “Lionel Dale’s income was only five thousand a year — very little, after all, for a woman with my views of life.”
“And with your genius for running into debt,” muttered her brother.
“Do you happen to remember the terms of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s will?” “I should think I do, indeed,” replied the captain; “the will was sufficiently talked about at the time of the baronet’s death.”
“That will left five thousand a year to each of the two brothers, Lionel and Douglas. If either should die unmarried, the fortune left to him was to go to the survivor. Lionel Dale’s death doubles Douglas Dale’s income. A husband with ten thousand a year would suit me very well indeed. And why should I not win Douglas as easily as I won Lionel?”
“Because you are not likely to have the same opportunities.”
“I have asked Douglas to visit us in London.”
“An invitation which must be very flattering to him, but which he may or may not accept. However, my dear Lydia, I have the most profound respect for your courage and perseverance; and if you can win a husband with ten thousand a year instead of five, so much the better for you, and so much the better for me, as I shall have a richer brother-in-law to whom to apply when I find myself in difficulties.”
The carriage had reached Frimley by this time. The brother and sister took their places in the coach which was to convey them to London.
Lydia drew down her veil, and settled herself comfortably in a corner of the vehicle, where she slept through the tedium of the journey.
At thirty years of age a woman of Miss Graham’s character is apt to be studiously careful of her beauty; and Lydia felt that she needed much repose after the fever and excitement of her visit to Hallgrove Rectory.
Sir Reginald Eversleigh played his part well during the few days in which he remained at the rectory. No mourner could have seemed more sincere than he, and everybody agreed that the spendthrift baronet exhibited an unaffected sorrow for his cousin’s fate, which proved him to be a very noble-hearted fellow, in spite of all the dark stories that had been told of his youth.
Before leaving Hallgrove, Reginald took care to make himself thoroughly acquainted with his cousin’s plans for the future. Douglas, with ten thousand a year, was, of course, a more valuable acquaintance than he had been as the possessor of half that income, even if there had been no dark influence ever busy weaving its secret and fatal web.
“You will go back to your old life in London, Douglas, I suppose?” said Sir Reginald. “There you will soonest forget the sad affliction that has befallen you. In the hurrying whirlpool of modern life there is no leisure for sorrow.”
“Yes, I shall come to London,” answered Douglas.
“And you will occupy your old quarters?”
“And we shall see as much of each other as ever — eh, Douglas?” said Sir Reginald. “You must not let poor Lionel’s fate prey upon your mind, you know, my dear fellow; or your health, as well as your spirits, will suffer. You must go down to Hilton House, and mix with the old set again. That sort of thing will cheer you up a little.”
“Yes,” answered Douglas. “I know how far I may rely upon your friendship, Reginald. I shall place myself quite in your hands.”
“My dear fellow, you will not find me unworthy of your confidence.”
“I ought not to find you so, Reginald.”
Sir Reginald looked at his kinsman thoughtfully for a moment, fancying there was some hidden meaning in Douglas Dale’s words. But the tone in which he had uttered them was perfectly careless; and Reginald’s suspicion was dispelled by the frank expression of his face.
Sir Reginald left Hallgrove a few days after the fatal accident in the hunting-field, and went back to his London lodging, which seemed very shabby and comfortless after the luxury of Hallgrove Rectory. He did not care to spend his evenings at Hilton House, for he shrank from hearing Paulina’s complaints about her loneliness and poverty. The London season had not yet begun, and there were few dupes whom the gamester could victimize by those skilful manoeuvres which so often helped him to success. It may be that some of the victims had complained of their losses, and the villa inhabited by the elegant Austrian widow had begun to be known amongst men of fashion as a place to be avoided.
Reginald Eversleigh feared that it must be so, when he found the few young men he met at his club rather disinclined to avail themselves of Madame Durski’s hospitality.
“Have you been to Fulham lately, Caversham?” he asked of a young lordling, who was master of a good many thousands per annum, but not the most talented of mankind.
“Fulham!” exclaimed Lord Caversham; “what’s Fulham? Ah, to be sure, I remember — place by the river — very nice — villas — boat-races, and that kind of thing. Let me see, bishops, and that kind of church-going people live at Fulham, don’t they?”
“I thought you would have remembered one person who lives at Fulham — a very handsome woman, who made a strong impression upon you.”
“Did she — did she, by Jove?” cried the viscount; “and yet, upon my honour, Eversleigh, I can’t remember her. You see, I know so many splendid women; and splendid women are perpetually making an impression upon me — and I am perpetually making an impression upon splendid women. It’s mutual, by Jove, Eversleigh, quite mutual. And pray, who is the lady in question?”
“The beautiful Viennese, Paulina Durski.”
The lordling made a wry face.
“Paulina Durski! Yes, Paulina is a pretty woman,” he murmured, languidly; “a very pretty woman; and you’re right, Eversleigh — she did make a profound impression upon me. But, you see, I found the impression cost me rather too much. Hilton House is the nicest place in the world to visit; but if a fellow finds himself losing two or three hundred every time he crosses the threshold, you can be scarcely surprised if he prefers spending his evenings where he can enjoy himself a little more cheaply. However, perhaps you’ll hardly understand my feelings on this subject, Eversleigh; for if I remember rightly you were always a winner when I played at Madame Durski’s.”
“Was I?” said Sir Reginald, with the air of a man who endeavours to recall circumstances that are almost forgotten.
The lordling was not altogether without knowledge of the world and of his fellow-men, and there had been a certain significance in his speech which had made Eversleigh wince.
“Did I win when you were there?” he asked, carelessly. “Upon my word, I have forgotten all about it.”
“I haven’t,” answered Lord Caversham. “I bled pretty freely on several occasions when you and I played écarté; and I have not forgotten the figures on the cheques I had the pleasure of signing in your favour. No, my dear Eversleigh, although I consider Madame Durski the most charming of women, I don’t feel inclined to go to Hilton House again.”
“Ah!” said Sir Reginald, with a sneer; “there are so few men who have the art of losing with grace. We have no Stavordales now-a-days. The man who could win eleven thousand at a coup, and regret that he was not playing high, since in that case he would have won millions, is an extinct animal.”
“No doubt of it, dear boy; the gentlemanly art of losing placidly is dying out; and I confess that, for my part, I prefer winning,” answered Lord Caversham, coolly.
This brief conversation was a very unpleasant one for Sir Reginald Eversleigh. It told him that his career as a gamester must soon come to a close, or he would find himself a disgraced and branded wretch, avoided and despised by the men he now called his friends.
It was evident that Viscount Caversham suspected that he had been cheated; nor was it likely that he would keep his suspicions secret from the men of his set.
The suspicion once whispered would speedily be repeated by others who had lost money in the saloons of Madame Durski. Hints and whispers would swell into a general cry, and Sir Reginald Eversleigh would find himself tabooed.
The prospect before him looked black as night — a night illumined by one lurid star, and that was the promise of Victor Carrington.
“It is time for me to have done with poverty,” he said to himself. “Lord Caversham’s insolent innuendoes would be silenced if I had ten thousand a year. It is clear that the game is up at Hilton House. Paulina may as well go back to Paris or Vienna. The pigeons have taken fright, and the hawks must seek a new quarry.”
Sir Reginald drove straight from his club to the little cottage beyond Malda Hill. He scarcely expected to find the man whom he had last seen at an inn in Dorsetshire; but, to his surprise, he was conducted immediately to the laboratory, where he discovered Victor Carrington bending over an alembic, which was placed on the top of a small furnace.
The surgeon looked up with a start, and Reginald perceived that he wore the metal mask which he had noticed on a former occasion.
“Who brought you here?” asked Victor, impatiently.
“The servant who admitted me,” answered Reginald. “I told her I was your intimate friend, and that I wanted to see you immediately. She therefore brought me here.”
“She had no right to do so. However, no matter. When did you return? I scarcely expected to see you in town as soon.”
“I scarcely expected to find you hereafter our meeting at Frimley,” replied the baronet.
“There was nothing to detain me in the country. I came back some days ago, and have been busy with my old studios in chemistry.”
“You still dabble with poisons, I perceive,” said Sir Reginald, pointing to the mask which Victor had laid aside on a table near him.
“Every chemist must dabble in poisons, since poison forms an element of all medicines,” replied Victor. “And now tell me to what new dilemma of yours do I owe the honour of this visit. You rarely enter this house except when you find yourself desperately in need of my humble services. What is the last misfortune?”
“I have just come from the Phoenix, where I met Caversham, I thought I should be able to get a hundred or so out of him at écarté to-night; but the game is up in that quarter.”
“He suspects that he has been —singularly unfortunate?”
“He knows it. No man who was not certain of the fact would have dared to say what he said to me. He insulted me, Carrington-insulted me grossly; and I was not able to resent his insolence.”
“Never mind his insolence,” answered Victor; “in six months your position will be such that no man will presume to insult you. So the game is up at Hilton House, is it? I thought you were going on a little too fast. And pray what is to be the next move?”
“What can we do? Paulina’s creditors are impatient, and she has very little money to give them. My own debts are too pressing to permit of my helping her; and such being the case, the best thing she can do will be to get back to the Continent as soon as she can.”
“On no account, my dear Reginald!” exclaimed Carrington. “Madame Durski must not leave Hilton House.”
“Never mind the why. I tell you, Reginald, she must stay. You and I must find enough money to stave off the demands of her sharpest creditors.”
“I have not a sixpence to give her,” answered the baronet; “I can scarcely afford to pay for the lodging that shelters me, and can still less afford to lend money to other people.”
“Not even to the woman who loves you, and whom you profess to love?” said Victor, with a sneer. “What a noble-minded creature you are, Sir Reginald Eversleigh — a pattern of chivalry and devotion! However, Madame Durski must remain; that is essential to the carrying out of my plans. If you will not find the money, I know who will.”
“And pray who is this generous knight-errant so ready to rush to the rescue of beauty in distress?”
“Douglas Dale. He is over head and ears in love with the Austrian widow, and will lend her the money she wants. I shall go at once to Madame Durski and give her a few hints as to her line of conduct.”
There was a pause, during which the baronet seemed to be thinking deeply.
“Do you think that a wise course?” he asked, at last.
“Do I think what course wise?” demanded his friend.
“The line of conduct you propose. You say Douglas is in love with Paulina, and I myself have seen enough to convince me that you are right. If he is in love with her, he is just the man to sacrifice every other consideration for her sake. What if he should marry her? Would not that be a bad look-out for us?”
“You are a fool, Reginald Eversleigh,” cried Victor contemptuously; “you ought to know me better than to fear my discretion. Douglas Dale loves Paulina Durski, and is the very man to sacrifice all worldly interests for her sake; the man to marry her, even were she more unworthy of his love than she is. But he never will marry her, notwithstanding.”
“How will you prevent such a marriage?”
“That is my secret. Depend upon it I will prevent it. You remember our compact the night we met at Frimley.”
“I do,” answered Reginald, in a voice that was scarcely above a whisper.
“Very well; I will be true to my part of that compact, depend upon it. Before this new-born year is out you shall be a rich man.”
“I have need of wealth, Victor,” replied the baronet, eagerly; “I have bitter need of it. There are men who can endure poverty; but I am not one of them. If my position does not change speedily I may find myself branded with the stigma of dishonour — an outlaw from society. I must be rich at any cost — at any cost, Victor.”
“You have told me that before,” answered the Frenchman, coolly, “and I have promised that you shall be rich. But if I am to keep my promise, you must submit yourself with unquestioning faith to my guidance. If the path we must tread together is a dark one, tread it blindly. The end will be success. And now tell me when you expect to see Douglas Dale in London.”
Sir Reginald explained his cousin’s plans, and after a brief conversation left the cottage. He heard Mrs. Carrington’s birds twittering in the cold January sunshine, and a passing glimpse through the open doorway of the drawing-room revealed to him the exquisite neatness and purity of the apartment, which even at this season was adorned with a few flowers.
“Strange!” he thought to himself, as he left the house; “any stranger entering that abode would imagine it the very shrine of domestic peace and simple happiness, and yet it is inhabited by a fiend.”
He went back to town. He dined alone in his dingy lodging, scarcely daring to show himself at his club — Lord Caversham had spoken so plainly; and had, no doubt, spoken to others still more plainly. Reginald Eversleigh’s face grew hot with shame as he remembered the insults he had been obliged to endure with pretended unconsciousness.
He feared to encounter other men who also had been losers at Hilton House, and who might speak as significantly as the viscount had spoken. This man, who violated the laws of heaven and earth with little terror of the Divine vengeance, feared above all to be cut by the men of his set.
This is the slavery which the man of fashion creates for himself — these are the fetters which such men as Reginald Eversleigh forge for their own souls.
But before we trace the progress of Sir Reginald from step to step in this terrible career, we must once more revert to the strange visitors at Frimley.
Jane Payland by no means approved of passing Christmas-day in the uninteresting seclusion of a country inn, with nothing more festive to look forward to than a specially ordered, but lonely dinner, and nothing to divert her thoughts but the rural spectacle afforded by the inn-yard. As to going out for a walk in such weather, she would not have thought of such a thing, even if she had any one to walk out with; and to go alone — no — Jane Payland had no fancy for amusement of that order. The day had been particularly dreary to the lady’s maid, because the lady had been busily engaged in affairs of which she had no cognizance, and this ignorance, not a little exasperating even in town, became well-nigh intolerable to her in the weariness, the idleness, and the dullness of Frimley. When Lady Eversleigh went out in the dark evening, accompanied by the mysterious personage in whom Jane Payland had recognized their fellow-lodger, the amazement which she experienced produced an agreeable variety in her sensations, and the fact that the man with the vulture-like beak carried a carpet-bag intensified her surprise.
“Now I’m almost sure she is something to him; and she has come down here with him to see her people,” said Jane Payland to herself, as she sat desolately by the fire in her mistress’s room, a well-thumbed novel lying neglected on her knee; “and she’s mean enough to be ashamed of them. Well, I don’t think I should be that of my own flesh and blood, if I was ever so great and so grand. I suppose the bag is full of presents — I’m sure she might have told me if it was clothes she was going to give away; I shouldn’t have grudged ’em to the poor things.”
Grumbling a good deal, wondering more, and feasting a little, Jane Payland got through the time until her mistress returned. But for all her grumbling, and all her suspicion, the girl was daily growing more and more attached to her mistress, and her respect was increasing with her liking. Lady Eversleigh returned to the inn alone late on that dismal Christmas-night, and she looked worn, troubled, and weary. After a few kind words to Jane Payland, she dismissed the girl, and went to bed, very tired and heart-sick. “How am I to prove it?” she asked herself, as she lay wearily awake. “How am I to prove it? in my borrowed character I am suspected; in my own, I should not be believed, or even listened to for a moment. He is a good man, that Lionel Dale, and he is doomed, I fear.”
On the morning of the twenty-sixth Mr. Andrew Larkspur had another long private conference with Lady Eversleigh, the immediate result of which was his setting out, mounted on the stout pony which we have seen in difficulties in a previous chapter, and vainly endeavouring to come up with Lionel Dale at the hunt. When Mr. Andrew Larkspur arrived at the melancholy conviction that his errand was a useless one, and that he must only return to Frimley, and concert with Lady Eversleigh a new plan of action, he also became aware that he was more hurt and shaken by his fall than he had at first supposed. When he reached Frimley he felt exceedingly sick and weak, (“queer,” he expressed it), and was constrained to tell his anxious and unhappy client that he must go away and rest if he hoped to be fit for anything in the evening, or on the next day. “I will see Mr. Dale to-night, if he and I are both alive,” said Mr. Larkspur; “but if he was there before me I could not say a word to him now. I don’t mean to say I have not had a hurt or two in the course of my life before now, but I never was so regularly dead~beat; and that’s the truth.”
Thus it happened that the acute Mr. Larkspur was hors de combat just at the time when his acuteness would have found most employment, and thus Lady Eversleigh’s project of vengeance received, unconsciously, the first check. The game of reprisals was, indeed, destined to be played, but not by her; Providence would do that, in time, in the long run. Meanwhile, she strove, after her own fashion, to become the executor of its decrees.
The news of Lionel Dale’s sudden disappearance, and the alarm to which it gave rise, reached the little town of Frimley in due course; but it was slow to reach the lonely lady at the inn. Lady Eversleigh had taken counsel with herself after Mr. Larkspur had left her, and had come to the determination that she would tell Lionel Dale the whole truth. She resolved to lay before him a full statement of all the circumstances of her life, to reveal all she knew, and all she suspected concerning Sir Reginald Eversleigh, and to tell him of Carrington’s presence in her neighbourhood, as well as the designs which she believed him to cherish. She told herself that her dead husband’s kinsman could scarcely refuse to believe her statement, when she reminded him that she had no object to serve in this revelation but the object of truth and respect for her husband’s memory. When he, Lionel Dale, could have rehabilitated her in public opinion by taking his place beside her, he had not done so; it was too late now, no advance on his part could undo that which had been done, and he could not therefore think that in taking this step she was trying to curry favour with him in order to further her own interest. After debating the question for some time, she resolved to write a letter, which Larkspur could carry to the rectory.
A great deal of time was consumed by Lady Eversleigh in writing this letter, and the darkness had fallen long before it was finished. When she rang for lights, she took no notice of the person who brought them, and she directed that her dinner should not be served until she rang for it. Thus no interruption of her task occurred, until Mr. Larkspur, looking very little the better for his rest and refreshment, presented himself before her. Lady Eversleigh was just beginning to tell him what she had done, when he interrupted her, by saying, in a tone which would have astonished any of his intimates, for there was a touch of real feeling in it, apart from considerations of business —
“I’m afraid we’re too late. I’m very much afraid Carrington has been one too many for us, and has done the trick.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lady Eversleigh, rising, in extreme agitation, and turning deadly pale. “Has any harm come to Lionel Dale?”
Then Mr. Andrew Larkspur told Lady Eversleigh the report which had reached the town, and of whose truth a secret instinct assured them both, only too completely. They were, indeed, powerless now; the enemy had been too strong, too subtle, and too quick for them. Mr. Larkspur did not remain long with Lady Eversleigh; but having counselled her to keep silence on the subject, to ask no questions of any one, and to preserve the letter she had written, which Mr. Larkspur, for reasons of his own, was anxious to see, he left her, and set off for the rectory. He reached his destination before the return of the party who had gone to search for the missing man. He mingled freely, almost unnoticed, with the servants and the villagers who had crowded about the house and lodges, and all he heard confirmed him in his belief that the worst had happened, that Lionel Dale had, indeed, come by his death, either through the successful contrivance of Carrington, or by an extraordinary accident, coincident with his enemy’s fell designs. Mr. Larkspur asked a great many questions of several persons that night, and as talking to a stranger helped the watchers and loiterers over some of the time they had to drag through until the genuine apprehension of some, and the curiosity of others, should be realized or satisfied, he met with no rebuffs. But, on the other hand, neither did he obtain any information of value. No stranger had been seen to join the hunt that day, or noticed lurking about Hallgrove that morning, and Mr. Larkspur’s own reliable eyes had assured him that Carrington was not among the recipients of the rector’s hospitality on Christmas-day. The footman, who had directed the unknown visitor by the way past the stables to the lower road, did not remember that circumstance and so it did not come to Mr. Larkspur’s knowledge. When the party who had led the search for Lionel Dale returned to the rectory, and the worst was known, Mr. Larkspur went away, after having arranged with a small boy, who did odd jobs for the gardener at Hallgrove, that if the body was brought home in the morning, he should go over to Frimley, on consideration of half-a-crown, and inquire at the inn for Mr. Bennett.
“It’s no good thinking about what’s to be done, till the body’s found, and the inquest settled,” thought Mr. Larkspur. “I don’t think anything can be done then, but it’s clear there’s no use in thinking about it to-night. So I shall just tell my lady so, and get to bed. Confound that pony!”
At a reasonably early hour on the following morning, the juvenile messenger arrived from Hallgrove, and, on inquiring for Mr. Bennett, was ushered into the presence of Mr. Larkspur. The intelligence he brought was brief, but important. The rector’s body had been found, much disfigured; he had struck against a tree, the doctors said, in falling into the river, and been killed by the blow, “as well as drownded,” added the boy, with some appreciation of the additional piquancy of the circumstance. He was laid out in the library. The fine folks were gone, or going, except Squire Mordaunt and Sir Reginald, the rector’s cousin. Mr. Douglas took on about it dreadfully; the bay horse had come home, with his saddle wet, but he was not hurt or cut about, as the boy knew of. This was all the boy had to tell.
Mr. Larkspur dismissed the messenger, having faithfully paid him the stipulated half-crown, and immediately sought the presence of Lady Eversleigh. The realization of all her fears shocked her deeply, and in the solemnity of the dread event which had occurred she almost lost sight of her own purpose, it seemed swallowed up in a calamity so appalling. But Mr. Larkspur was of a tougher and more practical temperament. He lost no time in setting before his client the state of the case as regarded herself, and the purpose with which she had gone to Frimley, now rendered futile. Mr. Larkspur entertained no doubt that Carrington had been in some way accessory to the death of Lionel Dale, but circumstances had so favoured the criminal that it would be impossible to prove his crime.
“If I told you all I know about the horse and about the man,” said Mr. Larkspur, “what good would it do? The man bought a horse very like Mr. Dale’s, and he rode away from here mounted on that horse, on the same day that Mr. Dale was drowned. I believe he changed the horses in Mr. Dale’s stable; but there’s not a tittle of proof of it, and how he contrived the thing I cannot undertake to say, for no mortal saw him at the rectory or at the meet; and the horse that every one would be prepared to swear was the horse that Mr. Dale rode, is safe at home at the rectory now, having evidently been in the river. Seeing we can’t prove the matter, it’s my opinion we’d better not meddle with it, more particularly as nothing that we can prove will do Sir Reginald Eversleigh any harm, and, if either of this precious pair of rascals is to escape, you don’t want it to be him.”
“Oh, no, no!” said Lady Eversleigh, “he is so much worse than the other as his added cowardice makes him.”
“Just so. Well, then, if you want to punish him and his agent, this is certainly not the opportunity. Next to winning, there’s nothing like thoroughly understanding and acknowledging what you’ve lost, and we have lost this game, beyond all question. Let us see, now, if we cannot win the next. If I understand the business right, Mr. Douglas Dale is his brother’s heir?”
“Yes,” said Lady Eversleigh; “his life only now stands between Sir Reginald and fortune.”
“Then he will take that life by Carrington’s agency, as I believe he has taken Lionel Dale’s,” said Mr. Larkspur; “and my idea is that the proper way to prevent him is to go away from this place, where no good is to be done, and where any movement will only defeat our purpose, by putting him on his guard — letting him know he is watched (forewarned, forearmed, you know)— and set ourselves to watch Carrington in London.”
“Why in London? How do you know he’s there?”
Mr. Larkspur smiled.
“Lord bless your innocence!” he replied. “How do I know it? Why, ain’t London the natural place for him to be in? Ain’t London the place where every one that has done a successful trick goes to enjoy it, and every one that has missed his tip goes to hide himself? I’ll take my davy, though it’s a thing I don’t like doing in general, that Carrington’s back in town, living with his mother, as right as a trivet.”
So Lady Eversleigh and Jane Payland travelled up to town again, and took up their old quarters. And Mr. Larkspur returned, and resumed his room and his accustomed habits. But before he had been many hours in London, he had ascertained, by the evidence of his own eyes, that Victor Carrington was, as he had predicted, in town, living with his mother, and “as right as a trivet.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47