After dismissing his nephew, Sir Oswald Eversleigh abandoned himself for some time to gloomy thought. The trial had been a very bitter one; but at length, arousing himself from that gloomy reverie, he said aloud, “Thank Heaven it is over; my resolution did not break down, and the link is broken.”
Sir Oswald had made his arrangements for leaving London that afternoon, on the first stage of his journey to Raynham Castle. There were few railroads six-and-twenty years ago, and the baronet was in the habit of travelling in his own carriage, with post-horses. The journey from London to the far north of Yorkshire was, therefore, a long one, occupying two or three days.
Sir Oswald left town an hour after his interview with Reginald Eversleigh.
It was ten o’clock when he alighted for the first time in a large, bustling town on the great northern road. He had changed horses several times since leaving London, and had accomplished a considerable distance within the five hours. He put up at the principal hotel, where he intended to remain for the night. From the windows of his rooms was to be seen the broad, open market-place, which to-night was brilliantly lighted, and thronged with people. Sir Oswald looked with surprise at the bustling scene, as one of the waiters drew the curtains before the long windows.
“Your town seems busy to-night,” he said.
“Yes, sir; there has been a fair, sir — our spring fair, sir — a cattle fair, sir. Perhaps you’d rather not have the curtains drawn, sir. You may like to look out of the window after dinner, sir.”
“Look out of the window? — oh, dear no! Close the curtains by all means.”
The waiter wondered at the gentleman’s bad taste, and withdrew to hasten the well-known guest’s dinner.
It was long past eleven, and Sir Oswald was sitting brooding before the fire, when he was startled from his reverie by the sound of a woman’s voice singing in the market-place below. The streets had been for some time deserted, the shops closed, the lights extinguished, except a few street-lamps, flickering feebly here and there. All was quiet, and the voice of the street ballad-singer sounded full and clear in the stillness.
Sir Oswald Eversleigh was in no humour to listen to street-singers. It must needs be some voice very far removed from common voices which could awaken him from his gloomy abstraction.
It was, indeed, an uncommon voice, such a voice as one rarely hears beyond the walls of the Italian opera-house — such a voice as is not often heard even within those walls. Full, clear, and rich, the melodious accents sent a thrill to the innermost heart of the listener.
The song which the vagrant was singing was the simplest of ballads. It was “Auld Robin Gray.”
While he sat by the fire, listening to that familiar ballad, Sir Oswald Eversleigh forgot his sorrow and indignation — forgot his nephew’s baseness, forgot everything, except the voice of the woman singing in the deserted market-place below the windows.
He went to one of the windows, and drew back the curtain. The night was cold and boisterous; but a full moon was shining in a clear sky, and every object in the broad street was visible in that penetrating light.
The windows of Sir Oswald’s sitting-room opened upon a balcony. He lifted the sash, and stepped out into the chill night air. He saw the figure of a woman moving a way from the pavement before the hotel very slowly, with a languid, uncertain step. Presently he saw her totter and pause, as if scarcely able to proceed. Then she moved unsteadily onwards for a few paces, and at last sank down upon a door-step, with the helpless motion of utter exhaustion.
He did not stop to watch, longer from the balcony. He went back to his room, snatched up his hat, and hurried down stairs. They were beginning to close the establishment for the night, and the waiters stared as Sir Oswald passed them on his way to the street.
In the market-place nothing was stirring. The baronet could see the dark figure of the woman still in the same attitude into which he had seen her sink when she fell exhausted on the door-step, half-sitting, half-lying on the stone.
Sir Oswald hurried to the spot where the woman had sunk down, and bent over her. Her arms were folded on the stone, her head lying on her folded arms.
“Why are you lying there, my good girl?” asked Sir Oswald, gently.
Something in the slender figure told him that the ballad-singer was young, though he could not see her face.
She lifted her head slowly, with a languid action, and looked up at the speaker.
“Where else should I go?” she asked, in bitter tones.
“Have you no home?”
“Home!” echoed the girl. “I have never had what gentlemen like you call a home.”
“But where are you going to-night?”
“To the fields — to some empty barn, if I can find one with a door unfastened, into which I may creep. I have been singing all day, and have not earned money enough to pay for a lodging.”
The full moon shone broad and clear upon the girl’s face. Looking at her by that silvery light, Sir Oswald saw that she was very beautiful.
“Have you been long leading this miserable life?” Sir Oswald asked her presently.
“My life has been one long misery,” answered the ballad-singer.
“How long have you been singing in the streets?”
“I have been singing about the country for two years; not always in the streets, for some time I was in a company of show-people; but the mistress of the show treated me badly, and I left her. Since then I have been wandering about from place to place, singing in the streets on market-days, and singing at fairs.”
The girl said all this in a dull, mechanical way, as if she were accustomed to be called on to render an account of herself.
“And before you took to this kind of life,” said the baronet, strangely interested in this vagrant girl; “how did you get your living before then?”
“I lived with my father,” answered the girl, in an altered tone. “Have you finished your questions?”
She shuddered slightly, and rose from her crouching attitude. The moon still shone upon her face, intensifying its deathlike pallor.
“See,” said her unknown questioner, “here are a couple of sovereigns. You need not wander into the open country to look for an empty barn. You can procure shelter at some respectable inn. Or stay, it is close upon midnight: you might find it difficult to get admitted to any respectable house at such an hour. You had better come with me to my hotel yonder, the ‘Star’— the landlady is a kind-hearted creature, and will see you comfortably lodged. Come!”
The girl stood before Sir Oswald, shivering in the bleak wind, with a thin black shawl wrapped tightly around her, and her dark brown hair blown away from her face by that bitter March wind. She looked at him with unutterable surprise in her countenance.
“You are very good,” she said; “no one of your class ever before stepped out of his way to help me. Poor people have been kind to me — often — very often. You are very good.”
There was more of astonishment than pleasure in the girl’s tone. It seemed as if she cared very little about her own fate, and that her chief feeling was surprise at the goodness of this fine gentleman.
“Do not speak of that,” said Sir Oswald, gently; “I am anxious to get you a decent shelter for the night, but that is a very small favour. I happen to be something of a musician, and I have been much struck by the beauty of your voice. I may be able to put you in the way of making good use of your voice.”
“Of my voice!”
The girl echoed the phrase as if it had no meaning to her.
“Come,” said her benefactor, “you are weary, and ill, perhaps. You look terribly pale. Come to the hotel, and I will place you in the landlady’s charge.”
He walked on, and the girl walked by his side, very slowly, as if she had scarcely sufficient strength to carry her even that short distance.
There was something strange in the circumstance of Sir Oswald’s meeting with this girl. There was something strange in the sudden interest which she had aroused in him — the eager desire which he felt to learn her previous history.
The mistress of the “Star Hotel” was somewhat surprised when one of the waiters summoned her to the hall, where the street-singer was standing by Sir Oswald’s side; but she was too clever a woman to express her astonishment. Sir Oswald was one of her most influential patrons, and Sir Oswald’s custom was worth a great deal. It was, therefore, scarcely possible that such a man could do wrong.
“I found this poor girl in an exhausted state in the street just now,” said Sir Oswald. “She is quite friendless, and has no shelter for the night, though she seems above the mendicant class. Will you put her somewhere, and see that she is taken good care of, my dear Mrs. Willet? In the morning I may be able to think of some plan for placing her in a more respectable position.”
Mrs. Willet promised that the girl should be taken care of, and made thoroughly comfortable. “Poor young thing,” said the landlady, “she looks dreadfully pale and ill, and I’m sure she’ll be none the worse for a nice little bit of supper. Come with me, my dear.”
The girl obeyed; but on the threshold of the hall she turned and spoke to Sir Oswald.
“I thank you,” she said; “I thank you with all my heart and soul for your goodness. I have never met with such kindness before.”
“The world must have been very hard for you, my poor child,” he replied, “if such small kindness touches you so deeply. Come to me tomorrow morning, and we will talk of your future life. Goodnight!”
“Good night, sir, and God bless you!”
The baronet went slowly and thoughtfully up the broad staircase, on his way to his rooms.
Sir Oswald Eversleigh passed the night of his sojourn at the ‘Star’ in broken slumbers. The events of the preceding day haunted him perpetually in his sleep, acting themselves over and over again in his brain. Sometimes he was with his nephew, and the young man was pleading with him in an agony of selfish terror; sometimes he was standing in the market-place, with the ghost-like figure of the vagrant ballad~singer by his side.
When he arose in the morning, Sir Oswald resolved to dismiss all thought of his nephew. His strange adventure of the previous night had exercised a very powerful influence upon his mind; and it was upon that adventure he meditated while he breakfasted.
“I have seen a landscape, which had no special charm in broad daylight, transformed into a glimpse of paradise by the magic of the moon,” he mused as he lingered over his breakfast. “Perhaps this girl is a very ordinary creature after all — a mere street wanderer, coarse and vulgar.”
But Sir Oswald stopped himself, remembering the refined tones of the voice which he had heard last night — the perfect self-possession of the girl’s manner.
“No,” he exclaimed, “she is neither coarse nor vulgar; she is no common street ballad-singer. Whatever she is, or whoever she is, there is a mystery around and about her — a mystery which it shall be my business to fathom.”
When he had breakfasted, Sir Oswald Eversleigh sent for the ballad~singer.
“Be good enough to tell the young person that if she feels herself sufficiently rested and refreshed, I should like much to have a few minutes’ conversation with her,” said the baronet to the head-waiter.
In a few minutes the waiter returned, and ushered in the girl. Sir Oswald turned to look at her, possessed by a curiosity which was utterly unwarranted by the circumstances. It was not the first time in his life that he had stepped aside from his pathway to perform an act of charity; but it certainly was the first time he had ever felt so absorbing an interest in the object of his benevolence.
The girl’s beauty had been no delusion engendered of the moonlight. Standing before him, in the broad sunlight, she seemed even yet more beautiful, for her loveliness was more fully visible.
The ballad-singer betrayed no signs of embarrassment under Sir Oswald’s searching gaze. She stood before her benefactor with calm grace; and there was something almost akin to pride in her attitude. Her garments were threadbare and shabby: yet on her they did not appear the garments of a vagrant. Her dress was of some rusty black stuff, patched and mended in a dozen places; but it fitted her neatly, and a clean linen collar surrounded her slender throat, which was almost as white as the linen. Her waving brown hair was drawn away from her face in thick bands, revealing the small, rosy-tinted ear. The dark brown of that magnificent hair contrasted with the ivory white of a complexion which was only relieved by transient blushes of faint rose-colour, that came and went with emotion or excitement.
“Be good enough to take a seat,” said Sir Oswald: “I wish to have a little conversation with you. I want to help you, if I can. You do not seem fitted for the life you are leading; and I am convinced that you possess talent which would elevate you to a far higher sphere. But before we talk of the future, I must ask you to tell me something of the past.”
“Tell me,” he continued, gently, “how is it that you are so friendless? How is it that your father and mother allow you to lead such an existence?”
“My mother died when I was a child,” answered the girl.
“And your father?”
“My father is dead also.”
“You did not tell me that last night,” replied the baronet, with some touch of suspicion in his tone, for he fancied the girl’s manner had changed when she spoke of her father.
“Did I not?” she said, quietly. “I do not think you asked me any question about my father; but if you did, I may have answered at random; I was confused last night from exhaustion and want of rest, and I scarcely knew what I said.”
“What was your father?”
“He was a sailor.”
“There is something that is scarcely English in your face,” said Sir Oswald; “were you born in England?”
“No, I was born in Florence; my mother was a Florentine.”
There was a pause. It seemed evident that this girl did not care to tell the story of her past life, and that whatever information the baronet wanted to obtain, must be extorted from her little by little. A common vagrant would have been eager to pour out some tale of misery, true or false, in the hearing of the man who promised to be her benefactor; but this girl maintained a reserve which Sir Oswald found it very difficult to penetrate.
“I fear there is something of a painful nature in your past history,” he said, at last; “something which you do not care to reveal.”
“There is much that is painful, much that I cannot tell.”
“And yet you must be aware that it will be very difficult for me to give you assistance if I do not know to whom I am giving it. I wish to place you in a position very different from that which you now occupy; but it would be folly to interest myself in a person of whose history I positively know nothing.”
“Then dismiss from your mind all thoughts of me, and let me go my own way,” answered the girl, with that calm pride of manner which imparted a singular charm to her beauty. “I shall leave this house grateful and contented; I have asked nothing from you, nor did I intend to ask anything. You have been very good to me; you took compassion upon me in my misery, and I have been accustomed to see people of your class pass me by. Let me thank you for your goodness, and go on my way.” So saying, she rose, and turned as if to leave the room.
“No!” cried Sir Oswald, impetuously; “I cannot let you go. I must help you in some manner — even if you will throw no light upon your past existence; even if I must act entirely in the dark.”
“You are too good, sir,” replied the girl, deeply touched; “but remember that I do not ask your help. My history is a terrible one. I have suffered from the crimes of others; but neither crime nor dishonour have sullied my own life. I have lived amongst people I despised, holding myself aloof as far as was possible. I have been laughed at, hated, ill-used for that which has been called pride; but I have at least preserved myself unpolluted by the corruption that surrounded me. If you can believe this, if you can take me upon trust, and stretch forth your hand to help me, knowing no more of me than I have now told you, I shall accept your assistance proudly and gratefully. But if you cannot believe, let me go my own way.”
“I will trust you,” he said; “I will help you, blindly, since it must be so. Let me ask you two or three questions, then all questioning between us shall be at an end.”
“I am ready to answer any inquiry that it is possible for me to answer.”
“My name is Honoria Milford.”
“Tell me, how is it that your manner of speaking, your tones of voice, are those of a person who has received a superior education?”
“I am not entirely uneducated. An Italian priest, a cousin of my poor mother’s, bestowed some care upon me when I was in Florence. He was a very learned man, and taught me much that is rarely taught to a girl of fourteen or fifteen. His house was my refuge in days of cruel misery, and his teaching was the only happiness of my life. And now, sir, question me no further, I entreat you.”
“Very well, then, I will ask no more; and I will trust you.”
“I thank you, sir, for your generous confidence.”
“And now I will tell you my plans for your future welfare,” Sir Oswald continued, kindly. “I was thinking much of you while I breakfasted. You have a very magnificent voice; and it is upon that voice you must depend for the future. Are you fond of music?”
“I am very fond of it.”
There was little in the girl’s words, but the tone in which they were spoken, the look of inspiration which lighted up the speaker’s face, convinced Sir Oswald that she was an enthusiast.
“Do you play the piano?”
“A little; by ear.”
“And you know nothing of the science of music?”
“Then you will have a great deal to learn before you can make any profitable use of your voice. And now I will tell you what I shall do. I shall make immediate arrangements for placing you in a first-class boarding school in London, or the neighbourhood of London. There you will complete your education, and there you will receive lessons from the best masters in music and singing, and devote the greater part of your time to the cultivation of your voice. It will be known that you are intended for the career of a professional singer, and every facility will be afforded you for study. You will remain in this establishment for two years, and at the end of that time I shall place you under the tuition of some eminent singer, who will complete your musical education, and enable you to appear as a public singer. All the rest will depend on your own industry and perseverance.”
“And I should be a worthless creature if I were not more industrious than ever any woman was before!” exclaimed Honoria. “Oh, sir, how can I find words to thank you?”
“You have no need to thank me. I am a rich man, with neither wife nor child upon whom to waste my money. Besides, if you find the obligation too heavy to bear, you can repay me when you become a distinguished singer.”
“I will work hard to hasten that day, sir,” answered the girl, earnestly.
Sir Oswald had spoken thus lightly, in order to set his protégée more at her ease. He saw that her eyes were filled with tears, and moving to the window to give her time to recover herself, stood for some minutes looking out into the market-place. Then he came back to his easy chair by the fire, and addressed her once more.
“I shall post up to town this afternoon to make the arrangements of which I have spoken,” he said; “you, in the meantime, will remain under the care of Mrs. Willet, to whom I shall entrust the purchase of your wardrobe. When that has been prepared, you will come straight to my house in Arlington Street, whence I will myself conduct you to the school I may have chosen as your residence. Remember, that from to-day you will begin a new life. Ah, by the bye, there is one other question I must ask. You have no relations, no associates of the past who are likely to torment you in the future?”
“None. I have no relations who would dare approach me, and I have always held myself aloof from all associates.”
“Good, then the future lies clear before you. And now you can return to Mrs. Willet. I will see her presently, and make all arrangements for your comfort.”
Honoria curtseyed to her benefactor, and left the room in silence. Her every gesture and her every tone were those of a lady. Sir Oswald looked after her with wonder, as she disappeared from the apartment.
The landlady of the “Star” was very much surprised when Sir Oswald Eversleigh requested her to keep the ballad-singer in her charge for a week, and to purchase for her a simple but thoroughly complete wardrobe.
“And now,” said Sir Oswald, “I confide her to you for a week, Mrs. Willet, at the end of which time I hope her wardrobe will be ready. I will write you a cheque for — say fifty pounds. If that is not enough, you can have more.”
“Lor’ bless you, Sir Oswald, it’s more than enough to set her up like a duchess, in a manner of speaking,” answered the landlady; and then, seeing Sir Oswald had no more to say to her, she curtseyed and withdrew.
Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s carriage was at the door of the “Star” at noon; and at ten minutes after twelve the baronet was on his way back to town.
He visited a great many West-end boarding-schools before he found one that satisfied him in every particular. Had his protégée been his daughter, or his affianced wife, he could not have been more difficult to please. He wondered at his own fastidiousness.
“I am like a child with a new toy,” he thought, almost ashamed of the intense interest he felt in this unknown girl.
At last he found an establishment that pleased him; a noble old mansion at Fulham, surrounded by splendid grounds, and presided over by two maiden sisters. It was a thoroughly aristocratic seminary, and the ladies who kept it knew how to charge for the advantages of their establishment. Sir Oswald assented immediately to the Misses Beaumonts’ terms, and promised to bring the expected pupil in less than a week’s time.
“The young lady is a relation, I presume, Sir Oswald?” said the elder Miss Beaumont.
“Yes,” answered the baronet; “she is — a distant relative.”
If he had not been standing with his back to the light, the two ladies might have seen a dusky flush suffuse his face as he pronounced these words. Never before had he told so deliberate a falsehood. But he had feared to tell the truth.
“They will never guess her secret from her manner,” he thought; “and if they question her, she will know how to baffle their curiosity.”
On the very day that ended the stipulated week, Honoria Milford made her appearance in Arlington Street. Sir Oswald was in his library, seated in an easy-chair before the fire-place, with a book in his hand, but with no power to concentrate his attention to its pages. He was sitting thus when the door was opened, and a servant announced —
Sir Oswald rose from his chair, and beheld an elegant young lady, who approached him with a graceful timidity of manner. She was simply dressed in gray merino, a black silk mantle, and a straw bonnet, trimmed with white ribbon. Nothing could have been more Quaker-like than the simplicity of this costume, and yet there was an elegance about the wearer which the baronet had seldom seen surpassed.
He rose to welcome her.
“You have just arrived in town?” he said.
“Yes, Sir Oswald; a hackney-coach brought me here from the coach~office.”
“I am very glad to see you,” said the baronet, holding out his hand, which Honoria Milford touched lightly with her own neatly gloved fingers; “and I am happy to tell you that I have secured you a home which I think you will like.”
“Oh, Sir Oswald, you are only too good to me. I shall never know how to thank you.”
“Then do not thank me at all. Believe me, I desire no thanks. I have done nothing worthy of gratitude. An influence stronger than my own will has drawn me towards you; and in doing what I can to befriend you, I am only giving way to an impulse which I am powerless to resist.”
The girl looked at her benefactor with a bewildered expression, and Sir Oswald interpreted the look.
“Yes,” he said, “you may well be astonished by what I tell you. I am astonished myself. There is something mysterious in the interest which you have inspired in my mind.”
Although the baronet had thought continually of his protégée during the past week, he had never asked himself if there might not be some simple and easy solution possible for this bewildering enigma. He had never asked himself if it were not just within the limits of possibility that a man of fifty might fall a victim to that fatal fever called love.
He looked at the girl’s beautiful face with the admiration which every man feels for the perfection of beauty — the pure, calm, reverential feeling of an artist, or a poet — and he never supposed it possible that the day might not be far distant when he would contemplate that lovely countenance with altered sentiments, with a deeper emotion.
“Come to the dining-room, Miss Milford,” he said; “I expected you today — I have made all my arrangements accordingly. You must be hungry after your journey; and as I have not yet lunched, I hope you will share my luncheon?”
Honoria assented. Her manner towards her benefactor was charming in its quiet grace, deferential without being sycophantic — the manner of a daughter rather than a dependent Before leaving the library, she looked round at the books, the bronzes, the pictures, with admiring eyes. Never before had she seen so splendid an apartment: and she possessed that intuitive love of beautiful objects which is the attribute of all refined and richly endowed natures.
The baronet placed his ward on one side of the table, and seated himself opposite to her.
No servant waited upon them. Sir Oswald himself attended to the wants of his guest. He heaped her plate with dainties; he filled her glass with rare old wine; but she ate only a few mouthfuls, and she could drink nothing. The novelty of her present position was too full of excitement.
During the whole of the repast the baronet asked her no questions. He talked as if they had long been known to each other, explaining to her the merits of the different pictures and statues which she admired, pleased to find her intelligence always on a level with his own.
“She is a wonderful creature,” he thought; “a wonderful creature — a priceless pearl picked up out of the gutter.”
After luncheon Sir Oswald rang for his carriage, and presently Honoria Milford found herself on her way to her new home.
The mansion inhabited by the Misses Beaumont was called “The Beeches.” It had of old been the seat of a nobleman, and the grounds which encircled it were such as are rarely to be found within a few miles of the metropolis; and they would in vain be sought for now. Shabby little streets and terraces cover the ground where grand old cedars of Lebanon cast their dark shadows on the smooth turf seven-and-twenty years ago.
Honoria Milford was enraptured with the beauty of her new home. That stately mansion, shut in by noble old trees from all the dust and clamour of the outer world; those smooth lawns, and exquisitely kept beds, filled with flowers even in this chill spring weather, must have seemed beautiful to those accustomed to handsome habitations. What must they have been then to the wanderer of the streets — the friendless tramp — who a week ago had depended for a night’s rest on the chance of finding an empty barn.
She looked at her benefactor with eyes that were dim with tears, as the carriage approached this delightful retreat.
“If I were your daughter, you could not have chosen a better place than this,” she said.
“If you were my daughter, I doubt if I could feel a deeper interest in your fate than I feel now,” answered Sir Oswald, quietly.
Miss Beaumont the elder received her pupil with ceremonious kindness. She looked at the girl with the keen glance of examination which becomes habitual to the eye of the schoolmistress; but the most severe scrutiny would have failed to detect anything unladylike or ungraceful in the deportment of Honoria Milford.
“The young lady is charming,” said Miss Beaumont, confidentially, as the baronet was taking leave; “any one could guess that she was an Eversleigh. She is so elegant, so patrician in face and manner. Ah, Sir Oswald, the good old blood will show itself.”
The baronet smiled as he bade adieu to the schoolmistress. He had told Honoria that policy had compelled him to speak of her as a distant relative of his own; and there was no fear that the girl would betray herself or him by any awkward admissions.
Sir Oswald felt depressed and gloomy as he drove back to town. It seemed to him as if, in parting from his protégée, he had lost something that was necessary to his happiness.
“I have not spent half a dozen hours in her society,” he thought, “and yet she occupies my mind more than my nephew, Reginald, who for fifteen years of my life has been the object of so much hope, so many cares. What does it all mean? What is the key to this mystery?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47