On the following day Victor Carrington presented himself at Hilton House, and was received by Miss Brewer alone. She was pale, chilly, and ungracious, as usual, and the understanding which had been arrived at between Carrington and herself did not move her to the manifestation of the smallest additional cordiality in her reception of him.
“I have to thank you for your prompt compliance with my request, Miss Brewer,” said Victor.
She made no sound nor sign of encouragement, and he continued. “Since I saw you, another complication has arisen in this matter, which makes our game doubly safe and secure. In order to explain this complication thoroughly, I must ask you to let me put you through a kind of catechism. Have I your permission, Miss Brewer?”
“You may ask me any questions you please,” returned Miss Brewer, in a hard, cold, even voice; “and I will answer them as truthfully as I can.”
“Do you know anything of Douglas Dale’s family connections and antecedents?”
“I know that his mother was Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s sister, and that he and Lionel Dale, who was drowned on St. Stephen’s day, were left large incomes by their uncle, in addition to some inconsiderable family property which they inherited from their father, Mr. Melville Dale, who was a lawyer, and, I believe, a not very successful one.”
“Did you ever hear anything of the family history of this Mr. Melville Dale, the father of Lionel and Douglas?”
“I never heard more than his name, and the circumstance I have already mentioned.”
“Listen, then. Melville Dale had a sister, towards whom their father conceived undue and unjust partiality (according to the popular version) from their earliest childhood. This sister, Henrietta Dale, married, when very young, a country baronet of good fortune, one Sir George Verner, and thereby still further pleased her father, and secured his favour. Melville Dale, on the contrary, opposed the old gentleman in everything, and ultimately crowned the edifice of his offences by publishing a deistical treatise, which made a considerable sensation at the time of its appearance, and caused the author’s expulsion from Balliol, where he had already attained a bad eminence by numerous escapades of the Shelley order. This proceeding so incensed his father that he made a will, in the heat of his anger, by which he disinherited Melville Dale, and left the whole of his fortune to his daughter, Lady Verner. If he repented this summary and vindictive proceeding, neither I nor any one else can tell. The disinherited son reformed his life very soon after the breach between himself and his father, and was lucky enough to win the affections of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s sister. But he was too proud to ask for his father’s forgiveness, and the father died a year after Douglas Dale’s birth — never having seen Mrs. Dale or his grandchildren. At the time of her father’s death, Lady Verner had no children, and she was, I believe, disposed to treat her brother very generously; but he was an obstinate, headstrong man, and persisted in believing that she had purposely done him injury with his father. He would not see her. He refused to accept any favour at her hands, and a complete estrangement took place. The brother and sister never met again; and it was only through the medium of the newspapers that Lionel and Douglas Dale learned, some time after their father’s death (Melville Dale died young), that severe affliction had befallen their aunt, Lady Verner. The bitter and deadly breach between father and son, and between brother and sister, was destined never to be healed. Lionel and Douglas grew up knowing nothing of their father’s family, but treated always with persistent kindness by their uncle, Sir Oswald Eversleigh, who insisted upon their making Raynham Castle a second home.”
“Their cousin Reginald must have liked that, I fancy,” remarked Miss Brewer, in her coldest tone.
“He did, as you suppose,” said Carrington; “he hated the Dales, and I fancy they had but little intimacy with him. He was early taken up by Sir Oswald, and acknowledged and treated as his heir. You know, of course, how all that came to grief, and how Sir Oswald married a nobody, and left her the bulk of his fortune?”
“Yes, I have heard all that,” said Miss Brewer. “Sir Reginald did not spare us the details of the injustice Sir Oswald had done him, or the expression of his feelings regarding it. Sir Reginald is the most egotistical man I know.”
“Well, then, as you are in possession of the family relations so far, let me return to Lady Verner, of whom her nephews knew nothing during their father’s lifetime. She had lost her husband shortly after the birth of her only child, and continued to live at Naples, whither Sir George had been taken, in the vain hope of prolonging his life. A short time after Sir George Verner’s death, and while his child was almost an infant, Lady Verner’s villa was robbed, and the little girl, with her nurse, disappeared. The general theory was, that the nurse had connived at the robbery, and gone off with the thieves; and being, after the fashion of Italian nurses, extraordinarily fond of the child, had refused to be parted from her. Be that as it may, the nurse and child were never heard of again, and though the case was put into the hands of the cleverest of the police, in Paris and London, no discovery has ever been made. Lady Verner fell into a state of hopeless melancholy, in which she continued for many years, and during that period, of course, her wealth accumulated, and is now very great indeed. I see by your face, Miss Brewer, that you are growing impatient, and are disposed to wonder what the family history of the Dales, and the troubles of Lady Verner, have to do with Paulina Durski and our designs for her future. Bear with my explanation a little longer, and you will perceive the importance of the connection between them.”
Miss Brewer gave her shoulders a slight shrug, expressive of supreme resignation, and Victor continued.
“Lady Verner has now recovered, under the influence of time and medical skill, and has come to London with the avowed purpose of arranging the affairs of her large property. She has heard of Lionel Dale’s death, and, therefore, knows that there is a candidate the less in the field. Sir Reginald Eversleigh has obtained access to this lady, and he has carefully nipped in the bud certain symptoms of interest which she betrayed in the fate of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s widow and orphan daughter. Lady Verner is an exceedingly proud woman, and you may suppose her maternal instincts are powerful, when the loss of her child caused her years of melancholy madness. My gifted friend speedily discovered these characteristics, and practised on them. Lady Verner was made aware that the widow of Sir Oswald Eversleigh was a person of low origin, and dubious reputation, and cared so little for her child that she had gone abroad, for an indefinite time, leaving the little girl at Raynham, in the care of servants. The result of this representation was, that Lady Verner felt and expressed extreme disgust, and considerable satisfaction that she had not committed herself to a course from which she must have receded, by opening any communication with Lady Eversleigh. One danger thus disposed of — and I must say I think Reginald did it well — he was very enthusiastic, he tells me, on the virtues of his uncle, and his inextinguishable regret for that benefactor of his youth.”
Miss Brewer’s cold smile, and glittering, baleful eye, attracted Carrington’s attention at this point.
“That shocks you, does it, Miss Brewer?” he asked.
“Shock me? Oh no! It rather interests me; there’s an eminence of baseness in it.”
“So there is,” said Carrington, with pleased assent, “especially to one who knows, as I do, how Reginald hated his uncle, living-how he hates his memory, dead. However, he did this, and did it well; but it was only half his task. Lady Verner would keep herself clear of Lady Eversleigh, but she must be kept clear of Douglas Dale.”
“Ha!” said Miss Brewer, with a slight change of attitude and expression, “I see now; she must be turned against him by means of Paulina — poor Paulina! She says she is fatal to him; she says he ought to fly from her. This looks still more like her being right.”
“It does, indeed, Miss Brewer,” said Carrington, gravely. “You are right. It was by means of Madame Durski that the trick was done; but neither you nor I— and I assure you I like your friend immensely — can afford to take objection to the manner of doing it. Lady Verner was made to understand that by extending her countenance to, or enriching Douglas Dale, she would only be giving additional security and eclât to a marriage scarcely less disgraceful than that which Sir Oswald Eversleigh had contracted. The device has been successful, so far. And now comes the third portion of Sir Reginald’s game — the substitution of himself in Lady Verner’s good graces for the nephew he has ousted. This is only fair, after all. Dale cut him out with his uncle — he means to cut Dale out with his aunt. You understand our programme now, Miss Brewer, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she replied, slowly, “but I don’t see why I should lend him any assistance. It would be more to my interest that Douglas Dale should inherit this lady’s fortune; the richer Paulina’s husband is, the better for me.”
“Unquestionably, my dear Miss Brewer,” said Carrington. “But Dale will not marry Paulina if Sir Reginald Eversleigh chooses to prevent it; and Douglas Dale will not give you five hundred pounds for any services whatever, because there are none which you can render him. I think you can see that pretty plainly, Miss Brewer. And you can also see, I presume, that, provided I get my money from Eversleigh, it is a manner of total indifference to me whether he gets Lady Verner’s money, or whether Dale gets it. The only means by which I can get my money is by detaching Sir Reginald from Paulina, and making him marry the ironmonger’s heiress. When that is done, and the money is paid, I am perfectly satisfied that Dale should get the fortune, and I think it very likely he will; but you must perceive that I cannot play my own game except by appearing to play Reginald’s.”
“Is Lady Verner likely to think the ironmonger’s heiress a good match for Sir Reginald Eversleigh?” Miss Brewer asked, in a coldly sarcastic tone.
“How is she to know anything of her origin?” returned Carrington, who was, however, disconcerted by the question. “She lives a most retired life; no one but Reginald has any access to her, and he can make her believe anything he likes.”
“That’s fortunate,” said Miss Brewer, drily; “pray proceed.”
“Well, then, you see these points as clearly as I do — the next thing to be done is to secure Paulina’s marriage with Douglas Dale.”
“I don’t think that needs much securing,” said Miss Brewer. “Judging from his manner before he left town, and from the tone of his letter, I should think very little encouragement from her would ensure a proposal of marriage from him.”
“And will she give him that encouragement?”
“Undoubtedly — I fully believe she will marry Douglas Dale. She has certainly learned to despise Sir Reginald Eversleigh, and I think Mr. Dale has caught her heart in the rebound.”
“Have you attended to my instructions about impressing her money difficulties on her mind — have you made things as bad as possible?”
“Certainly,” answered Miss Brewer. “Only this morning I have sent into her room several pressing and impertinent letters from her tradespeople, and I put some accounts of the most dispiriting character before her last night. She is in dreadfully low spirits.”
“So much the better! If we can but induce her to borrow money from Dale, all will be well; he will take that as a convincing proof of regard and confidence, and will propose to her at once. I am sure of it. So sure, that I will pass that matter by, and take it for granted. And now — if this comes to pass, and Douglas Dale is here as the accepted lover of Paulina, I must have constant access to the house, and he must not know me as Victor Carrington. He has never seen me, though I am familiar with his appearance.”
“Why?” asked Miss Brewer, in a tone of suspicious surprise.
“I will tell you, by-and-by. Suffice it for the present that it must be so. Then again, it would not do to have a man, who is not a relative, established l’ami de la maison. That it is not the sort of thing that an affianced lover could be expected to like. You must introduce me to Douglas Dale as your cousin, and by the name of Carton. It is sufficiently like my real name to prevent the servants knowing my name is changed, since they always bungle over the ‘Carrington.’ As Victor Carrington, Dale might refuse to know me, and certainly would not form any intimacy with me, and that he should form an intimacy with me is essential to my purpose.”
“Why?” said Miss Brewer, in exactly the same tone as before.
“I will tell you by-and-by,” said Carrington. “You consent, do you not?”
“I am not sure,” she answered. “But, even supposing I do consent, there is Paulina to be consulted. How is she to be induced to call you Mr. Carton and my cousin?”
“I will undertake to persuade Madame Durski that it will be for her best interests to consent,” said Carrington. “And now to my explanation. Reginald Eversleigh is a man who is not to be trusted for a moment, even where his own interests are closely concerned. He cares nothing for Paulina; he knows the best thing that can happen to him would be her marriage with Dale, for he calculates upon his hold over the wife giving him the chance of a good share of the husband’s money in some way. Yet, such is his vanity, so unmanageable is his temper, that if he were not too much afraid of me, too much in my power, he would indulge them both at the cost of destroying our plan. If he knew me to be absent, or unable to present myself freely here, he would persecute Paulina — she would never be free from him. He would compromise his own chance with the heiress, which is, naturally, my chief consideration, and compromise her with Douglas Dale. Again, I do not mind admitting to you, Miss Brewer, that I am of a cautious and suspicious temperament; and when I pay an agent liberally, as I intend to pay you, I always like to see for myself how the work is done.”
“That argument, at least, is unanswerable,” she replied. “You shall, so far as I can answer for it, pass as my cousin and Mr. Carton, and have a free entré here.”
“Good,” said Carrington, rising. “And now there is nothing more to be said just at present.”
“Pardon me; you have not told me why an intimacy with Mr. Dale is essential to your purpose.”
“Because I must watch his proceedings and intentions — in fact, know all about him — in order to discover whether it will suit my interests best to forward Eversleigh’s plans with respect to Lady Verner, or to betray them to Dale.”
Miss Brewer looked at him with something like admiration. She thought she understood him so perfectly now, that she need ask nothing farther. So they parted with the understanding that she was to report fully on Douglas Dale’s visit, and Carrington was to call on Paulina on the day succeeding it. When she was alone, Miss Brewer remembered that Carrington had not explained why it was he felt certain Dale would not form any intimacy with him as Victor Carrington. As he walked homewards, Victor muttered to himself —
“Heavens, what a clever fool that woman is. Once more I have won, and by boldness.”
The feelings with which Douglas Dale prepared for his visit to Hilton House on the day following that on which Victor Carrington had made his full and candid explanation to Miss Brewer, were such as any woman — the purest, the noblest, the best — might have been proud of inspiring. They were full of love, trust, pity, and hope. Douglas Dale had by no means ceased to feel his brother’s loss. No, the death of Lionel, and, even more, the terrible manner of that death, still pursued him in every waking hour — still haunted him in his dreams; but sorrow, and especially its isolating tendency, does but quicken and intensify feelings of tenderness in true and noble hearts.
He drove up to Hilton House with glad expectancy, and his eyes were dim as he was ushered into the drawing-room in which Paulina sat.
Madame Durski’s emotions on this occasion were unspeakably painful. So well had Miss Brewer played her part, that she had persuaded Paulina her only chance of escape from immediate arrest lay in borrowing money, that very day, from Douglas Dale. Paulina’s pride revolted; but the need was pressing, and the unhappy woman yielded.
As she rose to return her visitor’s greeting, and stood before him in the cold January sunset, she was indeed, in all outward seeming, worthy of any man’s admiration.
Remorse and suffering had paled her cheeks; but they had left no disfiguring traces on her perfect face.
The ivory whiteness of her complexion was, perhaps, her greatest charm, and her beauty would scarcely have been enhanced by those rosy tints so necessary to some faces.
To-day she had dressed herself to perfection, fully conscious of the influence which a woman’s costume is apt to exercise over the heart of the man who loves her.
Half an hour passed in conversation of a general nature, and then luncheon was announced. When Paulina and her visitor returned to the dreary room, they were alone; Miss Brewer had discreetly retired.
“My dear Madame Durski!” exclaimed Douglas, when the widow had seated herself and he had placed himself opposite to her, “I cannot tell you what intense pleasure it gives me to see you again, and most of all because it leads me to believe that I can in some manner serve you. I know how secluded your habits have been of late, and I fancy you would scarcely so depart from them in my favour if you had not some real need of my service.”
This speech was peculiarly adapted to smoothe away the difficulties of Paulina’s position. Douglas had long guessed the secret of her poverty, and had more than half divined the motive of her letter. He was eager to save her, as far as possible, from the painfulness of the request which he felt almost sure she was about to make to him.
“Your cordial kindness affects me deeply, Mr. Dale,” said Paulina, with a blush that was the glow of real shame. “You are right; I should be the last woman in the world to appeal to you thus if I had not need of your help — bitter need. I appeal to you, because I know the goodness and generosity of your nature. I appeal to you as a beggar.”
“Madame Durski, for pity’s sake, do not speak thus,” cried Douglas, interrupting her. “Every penny that I possess in the world is at your command. I am ready to begin life again, a worker for my daily bread, rather than that you should suffer one hour’s pain, one moment’s humiliation, that money can prevent.”
“You are too generous, too noble,” exclaimed Paulina, in a broken voice. “The only way in which I can prove my gratitude for your delicate goodness is by being perfectly candid. My life has been a strange one, Mr. Dale — a life of apparent prosperity, but of real poverty. Before I was old enough to know the value of a fortune, I was robbed of that which should have been mine, and robbed by the father who should have protected my interests. From that hour I have known little except trouble. I was married to a man whom I never loved — married at the command of the father who had robbed me. If I have not fallen, as many other women so mated have fallen, I take no pride in my superior strength of mind. It may be that temptation such as lures other women to their ruin never approached me. Since my husband died, my life, as you too well know, has been a degraded one. I have been the companion and friend of gamesters. It is, indeed, only since I came to England that I have myself ceased to be a gambler. Can you remember all this, Mr. Dale, and yet pity me?”
“I can remember it all, and yet love you, Paulina,” answered Douglas, with emotion. “We are not masters of our own affections. From the hour in which I first saw you I have loved you — loved you in spite of myself. I will admit that your life has not been that which I would have chosen for the woman I love; and that to remember your past history is pain to me. But, in spite of all, I ask you to be my wife; and it shall be the business of my future life to banish from your remembrance every sorrow and every humiliation that you have suffered in the past. Say that you will be my wife, Paulina. I love you as few women are loved. I am rich, and have the power to remove you far from every association that is painful to you. Tell me that I may be the guardian of your future existence.”
Paulina contemplated her lover for a few moments with singular earnestness. She was deeply impressed by his generous devotion, and she could not but compare this self-sacrificing love with the base selfishness of Reginald Eversleigh’s conduct.
“You do not ask me if I can return your affection,” she said, after that earnest look. “You offer to raise me from degradation and poverty, and you demand nothing in return.”
“No, Paulina,” replied Douglas; “I would not make a bargain with the woman I love. I know that you have not yet learned to love me, and yet I do not fear for the future, if you consent to become my wife. True love, such as mine, rarely fails to win its reward, sooner or later. I am content to wait. It will be sufficient happiness to me to know that I have rescued you from a miserable and degrading position.”
“You are only too generous,” murmured Paulina, softly; “only too generous.”
“And now tell me the immediate object of this most welcome summons. I will not press you for a prompt reply to my suit; I will trust that time may be my friend. Tell me how I can serve you, and why you sent for me to-day?”
“I sent for you that I might ask you for the loan of two hundred pounds, to satisfy the claims of my most urgent creditors, and to prevent the necessity of an ignominious flight.”
“I will write you a cheque immediately for five hundred,” said Douglas. “You can drive to my banker’s, and get it cashed there. Or stay; it would not be so well for my banker to know that I lent you money. Let me come again to you this evening, and bring ink sum in bank-notes. That will give me an excuse for coming.”
“How can I ever thank you sufficiently?”
“Do not thank me at all. Only let me love you, looking forward hopefully to the day in-which you may learn to love me.” “That day must surely come ere long,” replied Paulina, thoughtfully. “Gratitude so profound as mine, esteem so sincere, must needs grow into a warmer feeling.”
“Yes, Paulina,” said Douglas, “if your heart is free. Forgive me if I approach a subject painful to you and to me. Reginald Eversleigh — my cousin — have you seen him often lately?”
“I have not seen him since he left London for Hallgrove. I am not likely to see him again.”
“I am very glad of that. There is but one fear in my mind when I think of our future, Paulina.”
“And that is?”
“The fear that Reginald Eversleigh may come between you and me.”
“You need no longer fear that,” replied Madame Durski. “You have been so noble, so devoted in your conduct to me, that I must be indeed a worthless wretch if I shrink from the painful duty of laying my heart bare before you. I have loved your cousin Reginald, foolishly, blindly; but there must come an end to all folly; there must come a day when the bandage falls from the eyes that have obstinately shunned the light. That day has come for me; and Sir Reginald Eversleigh is henceforward nothing more to me than the veriest stranger.”
“A thousand thanks, dearest, for that assurance,” exclaimed Douglas; “and now trust in me. Tour future shall be so bright and happy that the past will seem to you no more than a troubled dream.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05