Nearly a year had elapsed since the murder of Valentine Jernam, and the March winds were blowing amongst the leafless branches of the trees in the Green Park.
In the library of one of the finest houses in Arlington Street, a gentleman paced restlessly to and fro, stopping before one of the windows every now and then, to look, with a fretful glance, at the dull sky. “What weather!” he muttered: “what execrable weather!”
The speaker was a man of some fifty years of age — a man who had been very handsome and who was handsome still — a man with a haughty patrician countenance — not easily forgotten by those who looked upon it. Sir Oswald Eversleigh, Baronet, was a descendant of one of the oldest families in Yorkshire. He was the owner of Raynham Castle, in Yorkshire; Eversleigh Manor, in Lincolnshire; and his property in those two counties constituted a rent-roll of forty thousand per annum.
He was a bachelor, and having nearly reached his fiftieth year it was considered unlikely that he would marry.
Such at least was the fixed idea of those who considered themselves the likely inheritors of the baronet’s wealth. The chief of these was Reginald Eversleigh, his favourite nephew, the only son of a younger brother, who had fallen gloriously on an Indian battle-field.
There were two other nephews who had some right to look forward to a share in the baronet’s fortune. These were the two sons of Sir Oswald’s only sister, who had married a country rector, called Dale. But Lionel and Douglas Dale were not the sort of young men who care to wait for dead men’s shoes. They were sincerely attached to their uncle; but they carefully abstained from any demonstration of affection which could seem like worship of his wealth. The elder was preparing himself for the Church; the younger was established in chambers in the Temple, reading for the bar.
It was otherwise with Reginald Eversleigh. From his early boyhood this young man had occupied the position of an adopted son rather than a nephew.
There are some who can bear indulgence, some flowers that flourish best with tender rearing; but Reginald Eversleigh was not one of these.
Sir Oswald was too generous a man to require much display of gratitude from the lad on whom he so freely lavished his wealth and his affection. When the boy showed himself proud and imperious, the baronet admired that high, and haughty spirit. When the boy showed himself reckless and extravagant in his expenditure of money, the baronet fancied that extravagance the proof of a generous disposition, overlooking the fact that it was only on his own pleasures that Reginald wasted his kinsman’s money. When bad accounts came from the Eton masters and the Oxford tutors, Sir Oswald deluded himself with the belief that it was only natural for a high-spirited lad to be idle, and that, indeed, youthful idleness was often a proof of genius.
But even the moral blindness of love cannot last for ever. The day came when the baronet awoke to the knowledge that his dead brother’s only son was unworthy of his affection.
The young man entered the army. His uncle purchased for him a commission in a crack cavalry regiment, and he began his military career under the most brilliant auspices. But from the day of his leaving his military tutor, until the present hour, Sir Oswald had been perpetually subject to the demands of his extravagance, and had of late suffered most bitterly from discoveries which had at last convinced him that his nephew was a villain.
In ordinary matters, Sir Oswald Eversleigh was by no means a patient or long-suffering man; but he had exhibited extraordinary endurance in all his dealings with his nephew. The hour had now come when he could be patient no longer.
He had written to his nephew, desiring him to call upon him at three o’clock on this day.
The idea of this interview was most painful to him, for he had resolved that it should be the last between himself and Reginald Eversleigh. In this matter he had acted with no undue haste; for it had been unspeakably distressing to him to decide upon a step which would separate him for ever from the young man.
As the timepiece struck three, Mr. Eversleigh was announced. He was a very handsome man; of a refined and aristocratic type, but of a type rather effeminate than powerful. And pervading his beauty, there was a winning charm of expression which few could resist. It was difficult to believe that Reginald Eversleigh could be mean or base. People liked him, and trusted him, in spite of themselves; and it was only when their confidence had been imposed upon, and their trust betrayed, that they learned to know how despicable the handsome young officer could be. Women did their best to spoil him; and his personal charms of face and manner, added to his brilliant expectations, rendered him an universal favourite in fashionable circles.
He came to Arlington Street prepared to receive a lecture, and a severe one, for he knew that some of his late delinquencies had become known to Sir Oswald; but he trusted in the influence which he had always been able to exercise over his uncle, and he was determined to face the difficulty boldly, as he had faced it before.
He entered the room with a smile, and advanced towards his uncle, with his hand outstretched.
But Sir Oswald drew back, refusing that proffered hand.
“I shake hands only with gentlemen and honest men,” he said, haughtily. “You are neither, Mr. Eversleigh.”
Reginald had been used to hear his uncle address him in anger; but never before had Sir Oswald spoken to him in that tone of cool contempt. The colour faded from the young man’s face, and he looked at his uncle with an expression of alarm.
“My dear uncle!” he exclaimed.
“Be pleased to forget that you have ever addressed me by that name, or that any relationship exists between us, Mr. Eversleigh,” answered Sir Oswald, with unaltered sternness. “Sit down, if you please. Our interview is likely to be a long one.”
The young man seated himself in silence.
“I have sent for you, Mr. Eversleigh,” said the baronet, “because I wished to tell you, without passion, that the tie which has hitherto bound us has been completely broken. Heaven knows I have been patient; I have endured your misdoings, hoping that they were the thoughtless errors of youth, and not the deliberate sins of a hardened and wicked nature. I have trusted till I can trust no longer; I have hoped till I can hope no more. Within the past week I have learned to know you. An old friend, whose word I cannot doubt, whose honour is beyond all question, has considered it a duty to acquaint me with certain facts that have reached his knowledge, and has opened my eyes to your real character. I have given much time to reflection before determining on the course I shall pursue with one who has been so dear to me. You know me well enough to be aware that when once I do arrive at a decision, that decision is irrevocable. I wish to act with justice, even towards a scoundrel. I have brought you up with the habits of a rich man, and it is my duty to save you from absolute poverty. I have, therefore, ordered my solicitors to prepare a deed by which an income of two hundred a year will be secured to you for life, unconditionally. After the execution of that deed I shall have no further interest in your fate. You will go your own way, Mr. Eversleigh, and choose your own companions, without remonstrance or interference from the foolish kinsman who has loved you too well.”
“But, my dear uncle — Sir Oswald — what have I done that you should treat me so severely?”
The young man was deadly pale. His uncle’s manner had taken him by surprise; but even in this desperate moment, when he felt that all was lost, he attempted to assume the aspect of injured innocence.
“What have you done!” cried the baronet, passionately.
“Shall I show you two letters, Reginald Eversleigh — two letters which, by a strange combination of circumstances, have reached my hands; and in each of which there is the clue to a shameful story — a cruel and disgraceful story, of which you are the hero?”
“You shall read them,” replied Sir Oswald. “They are addressed to you, and have been in your possession; but to so fine a gentleman such letters were of little importance. Another person, however, thought them worth preserving, and sent them to me.”
The baronet took up two envelopes from the table, and handed them to his nephew.
At the sight of the address of the uppermost envelope, Reginald Eversleigh’s face grew livid. He looked at the lower, and then returned both documents to his uncle, with a hand that trembled in spite of himself.
“I know nothing of the letters,” he faltered, huskily.
“You do not!” said his uncle; “then it will be necessary for me to enlighten you.”
Sir Oswald took a letter from one of the envelopes, but before reading it he looked at his nephew with a grave and mournful countenance, from which all traces of scorn had vanished.
“Before I heard the history of this letter, I fully believed that, in spite of all your follies and extravagances, you were at least honourable and generous-hearted. After hearing the story of this letter, I knew you to be base and heartless. You say you know nothing of the letter? Perhaps you will tell me that you have forgotten the name of the writer. And yet you can scarcely have so soon forgotten Mary Goodwin.”
The young man bent his head. A terrible rage possessed him, for he knew that one of the darkest secrets of his life had been revealed to his uncle.
“I will tell you the history of Mary Goodwin,” said the baronet, “since you have so poor a memory. She was the favourite and foster-sister of Jane Stukely, a noble and beautiful woman, to whom you were engaged. You met Jane Stukely in London, fell in love with her as it seemed, and preferred your suit. You were accepted by her — approved by her father. No alliance could have been more advantageous. I was never better pleased than when you announced to me your engagement. The influence of a good wife will cure him of all his follies, I thought, and I shall yet have reason to be proud of my nephew.”
“Spare me, sir, for pity’s sake,” murmured Reginald, hoarsely.
“When did you spare others, Mr. Reginald Eversleigh? When did you consider others, if they stood in the way of your base pleasures, your selfish gratifications? Never! Nor will I spare you. As Jane’s engaged lover, you were invited to Stukely Park. There you saw Mary Goodwin. Accident threw you across this girl’s pathway very often in the course of your visit; but the time came when you ceased to meet by accident. There were secret meetings in the park. The poor, weak, deluded girl could not resist the fascinations of the fine gentleman — who lured her to destruction by means of lying promises. In due time you left Stukely Park, unsuspected. Within a few days of your departure, the girl, Mary Goodwin, disappeared.
“For six months nothing was heard of the missing Mary Goodwin; but at the end of that time a gentleman, who remembered her in the days of her beauty and innocence at Stukely Park, recognized the features of Miss Stukely’s protégée in the face of a suicide, whose body was exhibited in the Morgue at Paris. The girl had been found drowned. The Englishman paid the charges of a decent funeral, and took back to the Stukelys the intelligence of their protégée’s fate; but no one knew the secret of her destruction. That secret was, however, suspected by Jane Stukely, who broke her engagement with you on the strength of the dark suspicion.
“It was to you she fled when she left Stukely Park — in your companionship she went abroad, where she passed as your wife, you assuming a false name — under which you were recognized, nevertheless. The day came when you grew weary of your victim. When your funds were exhausted, when the girl’s tears and penitence grew troublesome — in the hour when she was most helpless and miserable, and had most need of your pity and protection, you abandoned her, leaving her alone in Paris, with a few pounds to pay for her journey home, if she should have courage to go back to the friends who had sheltered her. In this hour of abandonment and shame, she chose death rather than such an ordeal, and drowned herself.”
“I give you my honour, Sir Oswald, I meant to act liberally. I meant,”— the young man interrupted; but his uncle did not notice the interruption.
“I will read you this wretched girl’s letter,” continued the baronet; “it is her last, and was left at the hotel where you deserted her, and whence it was forwarded to you. It is a very simple letter; but it bears in every line the testimony of a broken heart:—
“‘You have left me, Reginald, and in so doing have proved to me most fully that the love you once felt for me has indeed perished. For the sake of that love I have sacrificed every principle and broken every tie. I have disgraced the name of an honest family, and have betrayed the dearest and kindest friend who ever protected a poor girl. And now you leave me, and tell me to return to my old friends, who will no doubt forgive me, you say, and shelter me in this bitter time of my disgrace. Oh, Reginald, do you know me so little that you think I could go back, could lift my eyes once more to the dear faces that used to smile upon me, but which now would turn from me with loathing and aversion? You know that I cannot go back. You leave me in this great city, so strange and unknown to me, and you do not care to ask yourself any questions as to my probable fate. Shall I tell you what I am going to do, Reginald? You, who were once so fond and passionate a lover — you, whom I have seen kneeling at my feet, humbly born and penniless though I was — it is only right that you should know the fate of your abandoned mistress. When I have finished this letter it will be dark — the shadows are closing in already, and I can scarcely see to write. I shall creep quietly from the house, and shall make my way over to that river which I have crossed so often, seated by your side in a carriage. Once on the bridge, under cover of the blessed darkness, all my troubles will be ended; you will be burdened with me no longer, and I shall not cost you even the ten-pound note which you so generously left for me, and which I shall enclose in this letter. Forgive me if there is some bitterness in my heart. I try to forgive you — I do forgive you! May a merciful heaven pardon my sins, as I pardon your desertion of me! M.G.’”
There was a pause after the reading of the letter — a silence which Mr. Eversleigh did not attempt to break. “The second letter I need scarcely read to you,” said the baronet; “it is from a young man whom you were pleased to patronize some twelve months back — a young man in a banking office, aspiring and ambitious, whose chief weakness was the desire to penetrate the mystic circle of fashionable society. You were good enough to indulge that weakness at your own price, and for your own profit. You initiated the banker’s clerk into the mysteries of card-playing and billiards. You won money of him — more than he had to lose; and after being the kindest and most indulgent of friends, you became all at once a stern and pitiless creditor. You threatened the bank-clerk with disgrace if he did not pay his losses. He wrote you pleading letters; but you laughed to scorn his prayers for mercy, and at last, maddened by shame, he helped himself to the money entrusted to him by his employers, in order to pay you. Discovery came, as discovery always does come, sooner or later, in these cases, and your friend and victim was transported. Before leaving England he wrote you a letter, imploring you to have some compassion on his widowed mother, whom his disgrace had deprived of all support. I wonder how much heed you took of that letter, Mr. Eversleigh? I wonder what you did towards the consolation of the helpless and afflicted woman who owed her misfortunes to you?”
The young officer dared not lift his eyes to his uncle’s face; the consciousness of guilt rendered him powerless to utter a word in his defence.
“I have little more to say to you,” resumed the baronet. “I have loved you as a man rarely loves his nephew. I have loved you for the sake of the brother who died in my arms, and for the sake of one who was even dearer to me than that only brother — for the sake of the woman whom we both loved, and who made her choice between us — choosing the younger and poorer brother, and retaining to her dying day the affection and esteem of the elder. I loved your mother, Reginald Eversleigh, and when she died, within one short year of her husband’s death, I swore that her only child should be as dear to me as a son. I have kept that promise. Few parents can find patience to forgive such follies as I have forgiven. But my endurance is exhausted; my affection has been worn out by your heartlessness: henceforward we are strangers.”
“You cannot mean this, sir?” murmured Reginald Eversleigh.
There was a terrible fear at his heart — an inward conviction that his uncle was in earnest.
“My solicitors will furnish you with all particulars of the deed I spoke of,” said Sir Oswald, without noticing his nephew’s appealing tones. “That deed will secure to you two hundred a year. You have a soldier’s career before you, and you are young enough to redeem the past — at any rate, in the eyes of the world, if not before the sight of heaven. If you find your regiment too expensive for your altered means, I would recommend you to exchange into the line. And now, Mr. Eversleigh, I wish you good morning.”
“But, Sir Oswald — uncle — my dear uncle — you cannot surely cast me off thus coldly — you —”
The baronet rang the bell.
“The door — for Mr. Eversleigh,” he said to the servant who answered his summons.
The young man rose, looking at his kinsman with an incredulous gaze. He could not believe that all his hopes were utterly ruined; that he was, indeed, cast off with a pittance which to him seemed positively despicable.
But there was no hope to be derived from Sir Oswald’s face. A mask of stone could not have been more inflexible.
“Good morning, sir,” said Reginald, in accents that were tremulous with suppressed rage.
He could say no more, for the servant was in attendance, and he could not humiliate himself before the man who had been wont to respect him as Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s heir. He took up his hat and cane, bowed to the baronet, and left the room.
Once beyond the doors of his uncle’s mansion, Reginald Eversleigh abandoned himself to the rage that possessed him.
“He shall repent this,” he muttered. “Yes; powerful as he is, he shall repent having used his power. As if I had not suffered enough already; as if I had not been haunted perpetually by that girl’s pale, reproachful face, ever since the fatal hour in which I abandoned her. But those letters; how could they have fallen into my uncle’s hands? That scoundrel, Laston, must have stolen them, in revenge for his dismissal.”
He went to the loneliest part of the Green Park, and, stretched at full length upon a bench, abandoned himself to gloomy reflections, with his face hidden by his folded arms.
For hours he lay thus, while the bleak March winds whistled loud and shrill in the leafless trees above his head — while the cold, gray light of the sunless day faded into the shadows of evening. It was past seven o’clock, and the lamps in Piccadilly shone brightly, when he rose, chilled to the bone, and walked away from the park.
“And I am to consider myself rich — with my pay and fifty pounds a quarter,” he muttered, with a bitter laugh; “and if I find a crack cavalry regiment too expensive, I am to exchange into the line — turn foot-soldier, and face the scornful looks of all my old acquaintances. No, no, Sir Oswald Eversleigh; you have brought me up as a gentleman, and a gentleman I will remain to the end of the chapter, let who will pay the cost. It may seem easy to cast me off, Sir Oswald; but we have not done with each other yet.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05