“What is it, Jane?” asked Lady Eversleigh, rather impatiently, of her maid, when her knock at the door of her sitting-room in Percy Street interrupted the conversation between herself and the detective officer, a conversation intensely and painfully interesting.
“A person, ma’am, who wants to see Mr. Andrews, and will take no denial.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Larkspur; “that’s very odd: I know of nothing up at present for which they should send any one to me here. However,” and he rose as he spoke, “I suppose I had better see this person. Where is he?”
“In the hall,” replied Jane.
But Lady Eversleigh interposed to prevent Mr. Larkspur’s departure. “Pray do not go,” she said, “unless it concerns this business, unless it is news of my child. This may be something to rob me of your time and attention; and remember I alone have a right to your services.”
“Lor’ bless you, my lady,” said Mr. Larkspur, “I haven’t forgot that; and that’s just what puzzles me. There’s only one man who knows the lay I’m on, and the name I go by, and he knows I would not take anything else till I have reckoned up this; and it would be no good sending anybody after me, unless it were something in some way concerning this business.”
In an instant Lady Eversleigh was as anxious that Mr. Larkspur should see the unknown man as she had been unwilling he should do so. “Pray go to him at once,” she urged; “don’t lose a moment.”
Mr. Larkspur left the room, and Lady Eversleigh dismissed Jane Payland, and awaited his return in an agony of impatience. After the lapse of half an hour, Mr. Larkspur appeared. There were actually some slight traces of emotion in his face, and the colour had lessened considerably in his vulture-like beak. He was followed by a tall, stalwart, fine~looking man, with the unmistakeable gait and air of a sailor. As Lady Eversleigh looked at him in astonishment, Mr. Larkspur said:—
“I ain’t much of a believer in Fate in general, but there’s surely a Fate in this. My lady, this is Captain George Jernam!”
The time had passed slowly and wearily for Rosamond Jernam, and all the efforts conscientiously made by her husband’s aunt, who liked the girl better the more she saw of her, and entirely acquitted her of blame in the mysterious estrangement of the young couple, failed to make her cheerful. She was wont to roam disconsolately for hours about the secluded coast, giving free course to her sadness, and cherishing one dear secret. Rosamond was so much changed in appearance of late that Susan Jernam began to feel seriously uneasy about her. She had lost her pretty fresh colour, and her face wore a haggard, weary look; it was plain to every eye that some hidden grief was preying on her mind. Mrs. Jernam, though a quiet person, and given to the minding of her own affairs, was not quite without “cronies,” and to one of these she confided her anxiety about her niece. The confidante was a certain Mrs. Miller, a respectable person, but lower in the social scale than Mrs. Jernam. She was a widow, and lived in a tiny cottage, close to the beach at Allanbay; she kept no servant, but her trim little dwelling was always the very pink and pattern of neatness. She was of a silent, though not a morose temperament. It was generally understood that Mrs. Miller’s husband had been a seafaring man, and had been drowned many years before she went to live at Allanbay. She had no relatives, and no previous acquaintances in that quiet nook; and if she had been a little higher in the social scale, belonging to that class which requires introductions, she might have lived a life of unbroken solitude. As it was, the neighbours made friends with her by degrees, and the poor widow’s life was not an unhappy or solitary one. Mrs. Jernam had early learned the particulars of her case, and a friendship had grown up between them, of which Mrs. Miller duly acknowledged the condescension on Mrs. Jernam’s part.
Mrs. Jernam called on her humble friend one day, to bestow some small favour, and, to her surprise, found her, not alone as usual, but in the act of taking leave of a man whose appearance was by no means prepossessing, and who was apparently very much disconcerted by Mrs. Jernam’s arrival. Mrs. Jernam immediately proposed to go away and return on another occasion, but the man, who did not hear her name mentioned, said, gruffly:
“No call, ma’am, no call; I’m going away. Good-bye, Polly. Remember what you’ve got to do, and do it.” Then he turned off from the cottage~door, and was out of sight in a few moments.
Mrs. Miller stood looking at her guest, rather awkwardly, but said at length:
“Pray sit down, ma’am. That’s my brother; the only creature I have belonging to me in the world.” And here Mrs. Miller sighed, and looked as if the possession were not an unqualified advantage.
“Has he been here long?” asked Mrs. Jernam.
“No, ma’am; he only came last night, and is gone again. He came to bring me a child to take care of, and a great tax it is.”
“A child!” said Mrs. Jernam, “whose child?”
“That’s more than I can tell you, ma’am,” replied Mrs. Miller; “and more than he told me. She’s an orphan, he says, and her father was a seafaring man, like your nephew, as I’ve heard you speak of. And I’m to have the charge of her for a year, and thirty pounds — it’s handsome, I don’t deny, but he knows that I’d take good care of any child — and she’s a pretty dear, to tell the truth, as sweet a little creature as ever walked. She don’t talk very plain yet, and she says, as well as I can make it out, as her name is Gerty.”
And then Mrs. Miller asked Mrs. Jernam to walk into her little bedroom, and showed her, lying on a neat humble bed, carefully covered with a white coverlet, and in the deep sleep of childhood, the infant heiress of Raynham! If either of the women had only known at whom she was looking, as they scrutinized the child’s fair face and talked of her beauty and her innocence in tearful whispers, looking away from the sleeping form, pitifully, at a little heap of black clothes on a chair by the bed!
“I suppose she’s the child of one of my brother’s old shipmates, as rose to be better off,” said Mrs. Miller, “for she’s fretted about a captain, and cried bitter to go to him when I put her to bed.” Then the two returned to the little parlour, and talked long and earnestly about the child, about the necessity for Mrs. Miller’s now employing the services of “a girl,” and about Rosamond Jernam.
Rosamond was greatly delighted with the child left in Mrs. Miller’s care. The little girl interested her deeply, and every day she passed many hours with her, either at Mrs. Miller’s house or her own. The grace and beauty of the child were remarkable; and as, with the happy facility of childhood, she began to recover from the first feeling of strangeness and fear, the little creature was soon happy in her new, humble home. She was too young to appreciate and lament the change in her lot; and, as she was well fed, well cared for, and treated with the most caressing affection, she was perfectly happy. Rosamond began to feel hopeful under the influence of the child’s smiles and playful talk. The time must pass, she told herself, her husband must return to her, and soon there would be for them a household angel like this one, to bring peace and happiness permanently to their home.
Susan Jernam and Rosamond were much puzzled about this lovely child, Gerty Smith, as she was called. Not only her looks, but certain little ways she had, contradicted Mrs. Miller’s theory of her birth, and though they fully credited the good woman’s statement, and believed her as ignorant of the truth as themselves, they became convinced that there was some mystery about this child. Mrs. Miller had never spoken of her brother until he made his sudden and brief appearance at Allanbay; and unsuspicious and unlearned in the ways of the world as Mrs. Jernam was, she had perceived that he belonged to the doubtful classes. The truth was, that Mrs. Miller could have told them nothing about her brother beyond the general fact of his being “a bad lot.” She had heard of him only at rare intervals since he had left his father’s honest home, in his scampish, incorrigible boyhood, and ran away to sea. She had heard little good of him, and years had sometimes passed over during which she knew nothing of his fate. But even in Black Milsom — thief, murderer, villain, though he was — there was one little trace of good left. He did care a little for his sister; he did “look her up” at intervals in his career of crime; he did send her small sums of money — whence derived she had, happily, no suspicion — when he was “flush;” and he did hope “Old Polly” would never find out how bad a fellow he had been. Mrs. Miller’s nature was a very simple and confiding one, and she never speculated much upon her brother’s doings. She was pleased to have the charge of the child, and she fulfilled it to the best of her ability; but those signs and tokens of a higher station, which Susan Jernam and Rosamond recognized, were quite beyond her ken.
One morning the little household at Susan Jernam’s cottage, consisting only of the mistress and her maid, was roused by a violent knocking at the door. Mrs. Jernam was the first to open it, and to her surprise and alarm, she found Mrs. Miller standing at the door, her face expressing alarm and grief, and little Gerty, wrapped in a large woollen shawl, in her arms. Her explanation of what had occurred thus to upset her was at first incoherent enough, but by degrees Mrs. Jernam learned that Mrs. Miller had come to entreat her to take care of the child for a day or two as she was obliged to go to Plymouth at once.
“To Plymouth!” said Mrs. Jernam —“how’s that? — but come in, come in”— and they went into Mrs. Jernam’s spotlessly neat parlour, that parlour in which Valentine Jernam had been permitted to smoke, and had told his aunt all his adventures, little recking of the final one then so close upon him. In the parlour, Mrs. Miller set little Gerty down, and the child, giddy and confused with her sudden waking, and being thus carried through the chill morning air, climbed up on the trim little sofa, and curling herself into a corner of it, sat quite motionless. Then, her agitation finding vent in tears, Mrs. Miller told Susan Jernam what had befallen. It was this:—
Just as day was dawning, a dog-cart, driven by a gentleman’s servant, had come to her door — the dog-cart was now standing at a little distance from Mrs. Jernam’s house — and she had been called out by the servant, and told that he had been sent to bring her over to Plymouth, with as little delay as possible. It appeared that her brother, who had gone to Plymouth after depositing the child with her, had been run over in the street by a heavy coal-waggon, and severely injured. He had been carried to a hospital, and was for some time insensible. When he recovered his speech he was delirious, and the surgeons pronounced his case hopeless. He was now in a dying state, but conscious; and had been visited by a clergyman named Colburne, the man’s master, who had induced him to express contrition for his past life, and to make such reparation as now lay in his power. The first step towards this, as he informed Mr. Colburne, was seeing his sister. There was no time to be lost; the man’s life was fast ebbing; it was only a matter of hours; and the good clergyman, who had been with the dying man far into the night before he had succeeded in inducing him to consent to this step, hurried home, and sent his servant off to Allanbay before daybreak.
There was little delay. A few words of earnest sympathy from Mrs. Jernam, an assurance that the child should be well cared for, and Mrs. Miller left the house, ran down the road to the dog-cart, climbed into it, and was driven away.
Rosamond came in from her own little dwelling to her aunt’s, at an early hour that day, and when the first surprise and pleasure of finding the child there had passed away, the two women fell to speculating on what kind of revelation it might be which awaited Mrs. Miller.
“Depend upon it, aunt,” said Susan, “we shall hear the truth about little Gerty now.”
The hours wore solemnly away in the great building, consecrated to suffering and its relief, in which Black Milsom lay dying, with his sister kneeling by his bed, while the good clergyman, who had had pity on the soul of the sinner, sat on the other side, gravely and compassionately looking at them both. The meeting between the brother and sister had been very distressing, and the agony exhibited by the poor woman when she was made aware that her brother had acknowledged himself a criminal of the deepest dye, was intense. Calm — almost stupor — had succeeded to her wild grief, and the clergyman had spoken words of consolation and hope to the dying and the living. The surgeons had seen the man for the last time; there was nothing more to be done for him now — nothing to do but to wait for the equal foot approaching with remorseless tread.
It was indeed a fearful catalogue of crime to which the Rev. Philip Colburne had listened, and had written with his own hand at the dying man’s dictation. Not often has such a revelation been made to mortal ears, and the two who heard it — the Christian minister and the trembling, horrified sister — felt that the scene could never be effaced from their memories.
With only two items in that awful list this story has to do.
The first is, the murder of Valentine Jernam. As Mrs. Miller heard her brother, with gasping breath and feeble utterance, tell that horrible story, her heart died within her. She knew it well. Who at Allanbay had not heard of the murder of Mrs. Jernam’s darling nephew, the bright, popular, kind-hearted seaman, whose coming had been a jubilee in the little port; whose disappearance had made so painful a sensation? She had heard the story from his aunt, and Rosamond had told her how her husband lived in the hope of finding out and punishing his brother’s murderer. And now he was found, this murderer, this thief, this guilt~burdened criminal: and he was her only brother, and dying. Ah, well, Valentine Jernam was avenged. Providence had exacted George Jernam’s vengeance: the wrath of man was not needed here.
The second crime with which this story has to do was one of old date, one of the earliest in Black Milsom’s dreadful career. The dying wretch told Mr. Colburne how he had headed a gang of thieves, chiefly composed of sailors who had deserted their ships, some twenty-one or two years before this time, when retribution had come upon him, and in their company had robbed the villa of an English lady at Florence. This crime had been committed with the connivance and assistance of the Italian woman who was nurse to the English lady’s child. Milsom, then a handsome young fellow, had offered marriage to the woman, which offer was accepted; and she had made his taking her and the child with him — for nothing would induce her to leave the infant — a condition of her aid. He did so; but the hardship of her new life soon killed the Italian woman; and the child was left to the mercy of Milsom and an old hag who acted as his drudge and accomplice. What mercy she met with at those hands the reader knows, for that child was the future wife of Sir Oswald Eversleigh. Mr. Colburne listened to this portion of Milsom’s confession with intense interest.
“The name?” he asked; “the name of the lady who lived at Florence, the mother of the child? Tell me the name!”
“Verner,” said the dying man, in a hoarse whisper, “Lady Verner; the child’s name was Anna.”
He was very near his end when he finished his terrible story. While Mr. Colburne was trying to speak peace to the poor darkened, frightened, guilty soul, Mrs. Miller knelt by the bedside, sobbing convulsively. Suddenly she remembered the child she had the care of. Had his account of her been true? Was she also the victim of a crime? She waited, with desperate impatience, but with the habitual respect of her class, until Mr. Colburne had ceased to speak. Then she put her lips close to the dying man’s ear, and said —
“Thomas, Thomas, for God’s sake tell me about the child — who is she? Is what you told me true? If not, set it right — oh, brother, brother, set it right — before it is too late.”
The imploring tone of her voice reached her brother’s dull ear; a faint spasm, as though he strove in vain to speak, crossed his white drawn lips. But the disfigured head in its ghastly bandages was motionless; the shattered arm in its wrappings made no gesture. In terror, in despair, his sister started to her feet, and looked eagerly, closely, into his face. In vain the white lips parted, the eyelids quivered, a shiver shook the broad, brawny chest — then all was still, and Black Milsom was dead!
On the following morning Mr. Colburne took Mrs. Miller back to Allanbay, after giving her a night’s rest in his own hospitable home. He left her at her own cottage, and went to Mrs. Jernam’s house, as he had promised the afflicted woman he would save her the pain of telling the terrible story which was to clear up the mystery surrounding the merchant captain’s fate. When the clergyman reached the house, and lifted his hand to the bright knocker, he heard a sound of many and gleeful voices within — a sound which died away as he knocked for admittance.
Presently the door was opened by Mrs. Jernam’s trim maid, who replied, when Mr. Colburne asked if he could see Mrs. Jernam, and if she were alone — as a hint that he did not wish to see any one beside —
“Please, sir, missus is in, but she ain’t alone; Captain George and Mrs. George’s father have just come — not half an hour ago.”
And so Joyce Harker’s self-imposed task was at an end, and George Jernam’s long brooding upon his brother’s fate was over. A solemn stillness came upon the happy party at Allanbay, and Rosamond’s tears fell upon little Gerty, as she slept upon her bosom — slept where George’s child was soon to slumber. Mr. Colburne asked no questions about the child. Mrs. Miller had said nothing to him respecting her charge, and Milsom’s death, ensuing immediately on her question, had caused it to pass unnoticed. George Jernam, his wife, and Captain Duncombe started for London early the next day. They had come to a unanimous conclusion, on consultation with Mrs. Miller, that there was a mystery about the child, and that the best thing to be done was to communicate with the police at once. “Besides,” said George, “I must see Mr. Larkspur, and tell him he need not trouble himself farther; now that accident, or, as I believe Providence, has done for us what all his skill failed to do.”
When George Jernam presented himself at Mr. Larkspur’s office he underwent a rigid inspection by that gentleman’s “deputy,” and having, by a few hints as to the nature of his business, led that astute person to think that it bore on his principal’s present quest, he was entrusted with the address of Mr. Andrews, in Percy Street.
“So, you see, I don’t get my five hundred, because I didn’t find out Captain Jernam’s murderer,” said Mr. Larkspur, after a long and agitating explanation had put Lady Eversleigh in possession of all the foregoing circumstances. “And here’s Captain Jernam’s brother comes and takes the job of finding little missy out of my hands — does my work for me as clean as a whistle.”
“But I did not know I was doing it, Mr. Larkspur,” said George. “I did not know the little Gerty that my Rosamond is so sorry to part with, was Miss Eversleigh; you found it out, from what I told you.”
“As if any fool could fail to find out that,” said Mr. Larkspur good~humouredly. He had a strong conviction that neither the relinquishment of Lady Eversleigh’s designs of punishing her enemies, nor the finding of the heiress by other than his agency, would inflict any injury upon him — a conviction which was amply justified by his future experience.
“My good friend,” said Lady Eversleigh, “if I do not need your aid to restore my child to me, I need it to restore me to my mother. I cannot realize the truth that I have a mother, I can only feel it. I can only feel how she must have suffered by remembering my own anguish. And hers, how much more cruel, how prolonged, how hopeless! You will see to this at once, Mr. Larkspur, while I go to my child.”
“Lord bless you, my lady,” said Mr. Larkspur, cheerily, “there’s no occasion to look very far. You have not forgotten the lady, she that lives so quiet, yet so stylish, near Richmond, and that Sir Reginald Eversleigh pays such attention to? You remember all I told you about her, and how I found out that she was Mr. Dale’s aunt, and he know nothing about her?”
“Yes, yes,” said Lady Eversleigh, breathlessly, “I remember.”
“Well, my lady, that party near Richmond is Lady Verner, your ladyship’s mother.”
Lady Eversleigh was well nigh overwhelmed by the throng of feelings which pressed upon her. She, the despised outcast, the first-cousin of the man who had scorned her, a connection of the great family into which she had married, her husband’s equal in rank, and in fortune! She, the woman whose beauty had been used to lure Valentine Jernam to his death, she who had almost witnessed his murder; she owed to Valentine’s brother the discovery of her parentage, the defeat of her calumniators, her restoration to a high place in society, and to family ties, the destruction of Reginald Eversleigh’s designs on Lady Verner’s property, and — greatest, best boon of all — the recovery of her child. Her own devices, her own wilfulness had but led her into deeper danger, into more bitter sorrow; but Providence had done great things for her by the hands of this stranger, between whom and herself there existed so sinister a link.
“Can you ever forgive me, Captain Jernam,” she said, “for my share in your brother’s fate? Must I always be hateful in your sight? Will Mrs. Jernam ever permit me to thank her for her goodness to my child?”
For the answer, George Jernam stooped and kissed her hand, with all the natural grace inspired by natural good-feeling, and Lady Eversleigh felt that she had gained a friend where she had feared to meet a relentless foe. The little party remained long in consultation, and it was decided that nothing was to be done about Lady Verner until Lady Eversleigh had reclaimed her child. George Jernam entreated her to permit him to go to Allanbay and bring the little girl to her mother, but she would not consent. She insisted upon George’s bringing his wife to see her immediately, as the preparations for departure did not admit of her calling upon Mrs. Jernam. The gentle, happy Rosamond complied willingly, and so thoroughly had the beautiful lady won the girl’s heart before they were long together, that Rosamond herself proposed that George should accompany Lady Eversleigh to Allanbay. With pretty imperiousness she bore down Lady Eversleigh’s grateful scruples, and the result was, that the two started that same evening, travelled as fast as post-horses could carry them, and arrived at Allanbay before even Lady Eversleigh’s impatience could find the journey long. Susan Jernam had kept the child with her, and she it was who put little Gerty into her mother’s arms. Rarely in her life had Lady Eversleigh lain down to rest with do tranquil a heart as that with which she slept under the humble roof of Captain Jernam’s aunt.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05