A year and some months had passed, and the midsummer sunlight shone upon the woods around Raynham Castle.
It was a grand pile of buildings, blackened by the darkening hand of time. At one end Norman towers loomed, round and grim; at another extremity the light tracery of a Gothic era was visible in window and archway, turret and tower. The centre had been rebuilt in the reign of Henry VIII, and a long range of noble Tudor windows looked out upon the broad terrace, beyond which there was a garden, or pleasaunce, sloping down to the park. In the centre of this long façade there was an archway, opening into a stone quadrangle, where a fountain played perpetually in a marble basin. This was Raynham Castle, and all the woods and pastures as far as the eye could reach, and far beyond the reach of any human eye, belonged to the castle estate. This was the fair domain of which Reginald Eversleigh had been for years the acknowledged heir, and which his own folly and dishonour had forfeited.
Now all was changed. There was not a peasant in Raynham village who had not as much right to enter the castle, and as good a chance of a welcome, as he who had once been acknowledged heir to that proud domain. It was scarcely strange if Reginald Eversleigh felt this bitter change very keenly.
He had placed himself entirely in the hands of his friend and adviser, Victor Carrington. He had sold out of the cavalry regiment, and had taken up his abode in a modest lodging, situated in a small street at the West-end of London. Here he had tried to live quietly, according to his friend’s advice; but he was too much the slave of his own follies and vices to endure a quiet existence.
The sale of his commission made him rich for the time being, and, so long as his money lasted, he pursued the old course, betting, playing billiards, haunting all the aristocratic temples of folly and dissipation; but, at the worst, conducting himself with greater caution than he had done of old, and always allowing himself to be held somewhat in check by his prudent ally and counsellor.
“Enjoy yourself as much as you please, my dear Reginald,” said Victor Carrington; “but take care that your little follies don’t reach the ears of your uncle. Remember, I count upon your being reconciled to him before the year is out.”
“That will never be,” answered Mr. Eversleigh, with a tone of sullen despair. “I am utterly ruined, Carrington. It’s no use trying to shirk the truth. I am a doomed wretch, a beggar for life, and the sooner I throw myself over one of the bridges, and make an end of my miserable existence, the better. According to Millard’s account my uncle’s infatuation for that singing-girl grows stronger and stronger. Not a week now passes without his visiting the school where the young adventuress is finishing her education. As sure as fate, it will end by his marrying her and the street ballad-singer will be my Lady Eversleigh.”
“And when she is my Lady Eversleigh, it must be our business to step between her and the Eversleigh estates,” answered Victor, quietly. “I told you that your uncle’s marriage would be an unlucky thing for you; but I never told you that it would put an end to your chances. I think, from what Millard tells us, there is very little doubt Sir Oswald will make a fool of himself by marrying this girl. If he does, we must set our wits to work to prevent his leaving her his fortune. She is utterly friendless and obscure, so he is not likely to make any settlement upon her. And for the rest, a man of fifty who marries a girl of nineteen is very apt to repent of his folly. It must be our business to make your uncle repent very soon after he has taken the fatal step.”
“I don’t understand you, Carrington.”
“My dear Eversleigh, you very seldom do understand me,” answered the surgeon, in that half-contemptuous tone in which he was apt to address his friend; “but that is not of the smallest consequence. Only do what I tell you, and leave the rest to me. You shall be lord of Raynham Castle yet, if my wits are good for anything.”
A year had elapsed, which had been passed by Sir Oswald between Raynham Castle and Arlington Street, and during which he had paid more visits than he could count to “The Beeches.”
On the occasion of these visits, he only saw his protégée for about a quarter of an hour, while the stately Miss Beaumont looked on, smiling a dignified smile upon her pupil and the liberal patron who paid so handsomely for that pupil’s education. She had always a good account to give of Sir Oswald’s protégée— there never was so much talent united to so much industry, according to Miss Beaumont’s report. Sometimes Sir Oswald begged to hear Miss Milford sing, and Honoria seated herself at the piano, over whose notes her white fingers seemed to have already acquired perfect command.
The rich and clear soprano voice had attained new power since Sir Oswald had heard it in the moonlit market-place; the execution of the singer improved day by day. The Italian singing-master spoke in raptures of his pupil — never was there a finer organ or more talent. Miss Milford could not fail to create a profound impression when her musical education should be completed, and she should appear before the public.
But as the year drew to its close, Sir Oswald Eversleigh talked less and less of that public career for which he had destined his protégée. He no longer reminded her that on her own industry depended her future fortune. He no longer spoke in glowing terms of that brilliant pathway which lay before her. His manner was entirely changed, and he was grave and silent whenever any allusion was made by Miss Beaumont or Honoria to the future use which was to be made of that superb voice and exceptional genius.
The schoolmistress remarked upon this alteration one day, when talking to her pupil.
“Do you know, my dear Miss Milford, I am really inclined to believe that Sir Oswald Eversleigh has changed his mind with regard to your future career, and that he does not intend you to be an opera-singer.”
“Surely, dear Miss Beaumont, that is impossible,” answered Honoria, quietly; “my education is costing my kind bene — relative a great deal of money, which would be wasted if I were not to make music my profession. Besides, what else have I to look to in the future? Remember, Sir Oswald has always told you that I have my own fortune to achieve. I have no claim on any one, and it is to his generosity alone I owe my present position.”
“Well, I don’t know how it may be, my dear,” answered Miss Beaumont, “I may be mistaken; but I cannot help thinking that Sir Oswald has changed his mind about you. I need not tell you that my opinions are opposed to a professional career for any young lady brought up in my establishment, however highly gifted. I’m sure my blood actually freezes in my veins, when I think of any pupil of mine standing on a public stage, to be gazed at by the common herd; and I told Sir Oswald, when he first proposed bringing you here, that it would be necessary to keep your destiny a profound secret from your fellow-pupils; for I assure you, my love, there are mammas and papas who would come to this house in the dead of the night and carry off their children, without a moment’s warning, if they were informed that a young person intended to appear on the stage of the Italian Opera was receiving her education within these walls. In short, nothing but your own discreet conduct, and Sir Oswald’s very liberal terms, could have reconciled me to the risk which I have run in receiving you.”
The first year of Honoria Milford’s residence at “The Beeches” expired, and another year began. Sir Oswald’s visits became more and more frequent. When the accounts of his protégée’s progress were more than usually enthusiastic, his visits were generally followed very speedily by the arrival of some costly gift for Miss Beaumont’s pupil — a ring — a bracelet — a locket — always in perfect taste, and such as a young lady at a boarding-school might wear, but always of the most valuable description.
Honoria Milford must have possessed a heart of stone, if she had not been grateful to so noble a benefactor. She was grateful, and her gratitude was obvious to her generous protector. Her beautiful face was illuminated with an unwonted radiance when she entered the drawing-room where he awaited her coming: and the pleasure with which she received his brief visits was as palpable as if it had been expressed in words.
It was midsummer, and Honoria Milford had been a year and a quarter at “The Beeches.” She had acquired much during that period; new accomplishments, new graces; and her beauty had developed into fresh splendour in the calm repose of that comfortable abode. She was liked by her fellow-pupils; but she had made neither friends nor confidantes. The dark secrets of her past life shut her out from all intimate companionship with girls of her own age.
She had, in a manner, lived a lonely life amongst all these companions, and her chief happiness had been derived from her studies. Thus it was, perhaps, that she had made double progress during her residence with the Misses Beaumont.
One bright afternoon in June, Sir Oswald’s mail-phaeton and pair drove past the windows of the school-room.
“Visitors for Miss Milford!” exclaimed the pupils seated near the windows, as they recognized the elegant equipage.
Honoria rose from her desk, awaiting the summons of the schoolroom~maid. She had not long to wait. The young woman appeared at the door in a few moments, and Miss Milford was requested to go to the drawing~room.
She went, and found Sir Oswald Eversleigh awaiting her alone. It was the first time that she had ever known Miss Beaumont to be absent from the reception-room on the visit of the baronet.
He rose to receive her, and took the hand which she extended towards him.
“I am alone, you see, Honoria,” he said; “I told Miss Beaumont that I had something of a serious nature to say to you, and she left me to receive you alone.”
“Something of a serious nature,” repeated the girl, looking at her benefactor with surprise. “Oh, I think I can guess what you are going to say,” she added, after a moment’s hesitation; “my musical education is now sufficiently advanced for me to take some new step in the pathway which you wish me to tread.”
“No, Honoria, you are mistaken,” answered the baronet, gravely; “so far from wishing to hasten your musical education, I am about to entreat you to abandon all thought of a professional career.”
“To abandon all thought of a professional career! You would ask me this, Sir Oswald —you who have so often told me that all my hopes for the future depended on my cultivation of the art I love?”
“You love your art very much then, Honoria?”
“More than I love life itself.”
“And it would grieve you much, no doubt, to resign all idea of a public career — to abandon your dream of becoming a public singer?”
There was a pause, and then the girl answered, in a dreamy tone —
“I don’t know. I have never thought of the public. I have never imagined the hour in which I should stand before a great crowd, as I have stood in the cruel streets, amongst all the noise and confusion, singing to people who cared so little to hear me. I have never thought of that — I love music for its own sake, and feel as much pleasure when I sing alone in my own room, as I could feel in the grandest opera~house that ever was built.”
“And the applause, the admiration, the worship, which your beauty, as well as your voice, would win — does the idea of resigning such intoxicating incense give you no pain, Honoria?”
The girl shook her head sadly.
“You forget what I was when you rescued me from the pitiless stones of the market-place, or you would scarcely ask me such a question. I have confronted the public — not the brilliant throng of the opera-house, but the squalid crowd which gathers before the door of a gin-shop, to listen to a vagrant ballad-singer. I have sung at races, where the rich and the high-born were congregated, and have received their admiration. I know what it is worth, Sir Oswald. The same benefactor who throws a handful of half-pence, offers an insult with his donation.”
Sir Oswald contemplated his protégée in silent admiration, and it was some moments before he continued the conversation.
“Will you walk with me in the garden?” he asked, presently; “that avenue of beeches is delightful, and — and I think I shall be better able to say what I wish there, than in this room. At any rate, I shall feel less afraid of interruption.”
Honoria rose to comply with her benefactor’s wish, with that deferential manner which she always preserved in her intercourse with him, and they walked out upon the velvet lawn. Across the lawn lay the beech-avenue, and it was thither Sir Oswald directed his steps.
“Honoria,” he said, after a silence of some duration, “if you knew how much doubt — how much hesitation I experienced before I came here today — how much I still question the wisdom of my coming — I think you would pity me. But I am here, and I must needs speak plainly, if I am to speak at all. Long ago I tried to think that my interest in your fate was only a natural impulse of charity — only an ordinary tribute to gifts so far above the common. I tried to think this, and I acted with the cold, calculating wisdom of a man of the world, when I marked out for you a career by which you might win distinction for yourself, and placed you in the way of following that career. I meant to spend last year upon the Continent. I did not expect to see you once in twelve months; but the strange influence which possessed me in the hour of our first meeting grew stronger upon me day by day. In spite of myself, I thought of you; in spite of myself I came here again and again, to look upon your face, to hear your voice, for a few brief moments, and then to go out into the world, to find it darker and colder by contrast with the brightness of your beauty. Little by little, the idea of your becoming a public singer became odious to me,” continued Sir Oswald. “At first I thought with pride of the success which would be yours, the worship which would be offered at your shrine; but my feeling changed completely before long, and I shuddered at the image of your triumphs, for those triumphs must, doubtless, separate us for ever. Why should I dwell upon this change of feeling? You must have already guessed the secret of my heart. Tell me that you do not despise me!”
“Despise you, Sir Oswald! — you, the noblest and most generous of men! Surely, you must know that I admire and reverence you for all your noble qualities, as well as for your goodness to a wretched creature like me.”
“But, Honoria, I want something more than your esteem. Do you remember the night I first heard you singing in the market-place on the north road?”
“Can I ever forget that miserable night?” cried the girl, in a tone of surprise — the question seemed so strange to her —“that bitter hour, in which you came to my rescue?”
“Do you remember the song you were singing — the last song you ever sang in the streets?”
Honoria Milford paused for some moments before answering It was evident that she could not at first recall the memory of that last song.
“My brain was almost bewildered that night,” she said; “I was so weary, so miserable; and yet, stay, I do remember the song. It was ‘Auld Robin Gray.’”
“Yes, Honoria, the story of an old man’s love for a woman young enough to be his daughter. I was sitting by my cheerless fire-side, meditating very gloomily upon the events of the day, which had been a sad one for me, when your thrilling tones stole upon my ear, and roused me from my reverie. I listened to every note of that old ballad. Although those words had long been familiar to me, they seemed new and strange that night. An irresistible impulse led me to the spot where you had sunk down in your helplessness. From that hour to this you have been the ruling influence of my life. I have loved you with a devotion which few men have power to feel. Tell me, Honoria, have I loved in vain? The happiness of my life trembles in the balance. It is for you to decide whether my existence henceforward is to be worthless to me, or whether I am to be the proudest and happiest of men.”
“Would my love make you happy, Sir Oswald?”
“Then it is yours.”
“You love me — in spite of the difference between our ages?”
“Yes, Sir Oswald, I honour and love you with all my heart,” answered Honoria Milford. “Whom have I seen so worthy of a woman’s affection? From the first hour in which some guardian angel threw me across your pathway, what have I seen in you but nobility of soul and generosity of heart? Is it strange, therefore, if my gratitude has ripened into love?”
“Honoria,” murmured Sir Oswald, bending over the drooping head, and pressing his lips gently on the pure brow —“Honoria, you have made me too happy. I can scarcely believe that this happiness is not some dream, which will melt away presently, and leave me alone and desolate — the fool of my own fancy.”
He led Honoria back towards the house. Even in this moment of supreme happiness he was obliged to remember Miss Beaumont, who would, no doubt, be lurking somewhere on the watch for her pupil.
“Then you will give up all thought of a professional career, Honoria?” said the baronet, as they walked slowly back.
“I will obey you in everything.”
“My dearest girl — and when you leave this house, you will leave it as Lady Eversleigh.”
Miss Beaumont was waiting in the drawing-room, and was evidently somewhat astonished by the duration of the interview between Sir Oswald and her pupil.
“You have been admiring the grounds, I see, Sir Oswald,” she said, very graciously. “It is not quite usual for a gentleman visitor and a pupil to promenade in the grounds tête-à-tête; but I suppose, in the case of a gentleman of your time of life, we must relax the severity of our rules in some measure.”
The baronet bowed stiffly. A man of fifty does not care to be reminded of his time of life at the very moment when he has just been accepted as the husband of a girl of nineteen.
“It may, perhaps, be the last opportunity which I may have of admiring your grounds, Miss Beaumont,” he said, presently, “for I think of removing your pupil very shortly.”
“Indeed!” cried the governess, reddening with suppressed indignation. “I trust Miss Milford has not found occasion to make any complaint; she has enjoyed especial privileges under this roof — a separate bed-room, silver forks and spoons, roast veal or lamb on Sundays, throughout the summer season — to say nothing of the most unremitting supervision of a positively maternal character, and I should really consider Miss Milford wanting in common gratitude if she had complained.”
“You are mistaken, my dear madam; Miss Milford has uttered no word of complaint. On the contrary, I am sure she has been perfectly happy in your establishment; but changes occur every day, and an important change will, I trust, speedily occur in my life, and in that of Miss Milford. When I first proposed bringing her to you, you asked me if she was a relation; I told you he was distantly related to me. I hope soon to be able to say that distant relationship has been transformed into a very near one. I hope soon to call Honoria Milford my wife.”
Miss Beaumont’s astonishment on hearing this announcement was extreme; but as surprise was one of the emotions peculiar to the common herd, the governess did her best to suppress all signs of that feeling. Sir Oswald told her that, as Miss Milford was an orphan, and without any near relative, he would wish to take her straight from “The Beeches” to the church in which he would make her his wife, and he begged Miss Beaumont to give him her assistance in the arrangement of the wedding.
The mistress of “The Beeches” possessed a really kind heart beneath the ice of her ultra-gentility, and she was pleased with the idea of assisting in the bringing about of a genuine love-match. Besides, the affair, if well managed, would reflect considerable importance upon herself, and she would be able by and bye to talk of “my pupil, Lady Eversleigh;” or, “that sweet girl, Miss Milford, who afterwards married the wealthy baronet, Sir Oswald Eversleigh.” Sir Oswald pleaded for an early celebration of the marriage — and Honoria, accustomed to obey him in all things, did not oppose his wish in this crisis of his life. Once more Sir Oswald wrote a cheque for the wardrobe of his protégée, and Miss Beaumont swelled with pomposity as she thought of the grandeur which might be derived from the expenditure of a large sum of money at certain West-end emporiums where she was in the habit of making purchases for her pupils, and where she was already considered a person of some importance.
It was holiday-time at “The Beeches,” and almost all the pupils were absent. Miss Beaumont was, therefore, able to devote the ensuing fortnight to the delightful task of shopping. She drove into town almost every day with Honoria, and hours were spent in the choice of silks and satins, velvets and laces, and in long consultations with milliners and dressmakers of Parisian celebrity and boundless extravagance.
“Sir Oswald has intrusted me with the supervision of this most important business, and I will drop down in a fainting-fit from sheer exhaustion before the counter at Howell and James’s, sooner than I would fail in my duty to the extent of an iota,” Miss Beaumont said, when Honoria begged her to take less trouble about the wedding trousseau.
It was Sir Oswald’s wish that the wedding should be strictly private. Whom could he invite to assist at his union with a nameless and friendless bride? Miss Beaumont was the only person whom he could trust, and even her he had deceived; for she believed that Honoria Milford was some fourth or fifth cousin — some poor relative of Sir Oswald’s.
Early in July the wedding took place. All preparations had been made so quietly as to baffle even the penetration of the watchful Millard. He had perceived that the baronet was more than usually occupied, and in higher spirits than were habitual to him; but he could not discover the reason.
“There’s something going on, sir,” he said to Victor Carrington; “but I’m blest if I know what it is. I dare say that young woman is at the bottom of it. I never did see my master look so well or so happy. It seems as if he was growing younger every day.”
Reginald Eversleigh looked at his friend in blank despair when these tidings reached him.
“I told you I was ruined, Victor,” he said; “and now, perhaps, you will believe me. My uncle will marry that woman.”
It was only on the eve of his wedding-day that Sir Oswald Eversleigh made any communication to his valet. While dressing for dinner that evening, he said, quietly —
“I want my portmanteaus packed for travelling between this and two o’clock to-morrow, Millard; and you will hold yourself in readiness to accompany me. I shall post from London, starting from a house near Fulham, at three o’clock. The chariot must leave here, with you and the luggage, at two.”
“You are going abroad, sir?”
“No, I am going to North Wales for a week or two; but I do not go alone. I am going to be married to-morrow morning, Millard, and Lady Eversleigh will accompany me.”
Much as the probability of this marriage had been discussed in the Arlington Street household, the fact came upon Joseph Millard as a surprise. Nothing is so unwelcome to old servants as the marriage of a master who has long been a bachelor. Let the bride be never so fair, never so high-born, she will be looked on as an interloper; and if, as in this case, she happens to be poor and nameless, the bridegroom is regarded as a dupe and a fool; the bride is stigmatized as an adventuress.
The valet was fully occupied that evening with preparations for the journey of the following day, and could find no time to call at Mr. Eversleigh’s lodgings with his evil tidings.
“He’ll hear of it soon enough, I dare say, poor, unfortunate young man,” thought Mr. Millard.
The valet was right. In a few days the announcement of the baronet’s marriage appeared in “The Times” newspaper; for, though he had celebrated that marriage with all privacy, he had no wish to keep his fair young wife hidden from the world.
“On Thursday, the 4th instant, at St. Mary’s Church, Fulham, Sir Oswald Morton Vansittart Eversleigh, Bart., to Honoria daughter of the late Thomas Milford.”
This was all; and this was the announcement which Reginald Eversleigh read one morning, as he dawdled over his late breakfast, after a night spent in dissipation and folly. He threw the paper away from him, with an oath, and hurried to his toilet. He dressed himself with less care than usual, for to-day he was in a hurry; he wanted at once to communicate with his friend, Victor Carrington.
The young surgeon lived at the very extremity of the Maida Hill district, in a cottage, which was then almost in the country. It was a comfortable little residence; but Reginald Eversleigh looked at it with supreme contempt.
“You can wait,” he said to the hackney coachman; “I shall be here in about half an hour.”
The man drove away to refresh his horses at the nearest inn, and Reginald Eversleigh strode impatiently past the trim little servant~girl who opened the garden gate, and walked, unannounced, into the miniature hall.
Everything in and about Victor Carrington’s abode was the perfection of neatness. The presence of poverty was visible, it is true; but poverty was made to wear its fairest shape. In the snug drawing-room to which Reginald Eversleigh was admitted all was bright and fresh. White muslin curtains shaded the French window; birds sang in gilded cages, of inexpensive quality, but elegant design; and tall glass vases of freshly cut flowers adorned tables and mantel-piece.
Sir Oswald’s nephew looked contemptuously at this elegance of poverty. For him nothing but the splendour of wealth possessed any charm.
The surgeon came to him while he stood musing thus.
“Do you mind coming to my laboratory?” he asked, after shaking hands with his unexpected visitor. “I can see that you have something of importance to say to me, and we shall be safer from interruption there.”
“I shouldn’t have come to this fag-end of Christendom if I hadn’t wanted very much to see you, you may depend upon it, Carrington,” answered Reginald, sulkily. “What on earth makes you live in such an out-of-the-way hole?”
“I am a student, and an out-of-the-way hole — as you are good enough to call it — suits my habits. Besides, this house is cheap, and the rent suits my pocket.”
“It looks like a doll’s house,” said Reginald, contemptuously.
“My mother likes to surround herself with birds and flowers,” answered the surgeon; “and I like to indulge any fancy of my mother’s.”
Victor Carrington’s countenance seemed to undergo a kind of transformation as he spoke of his mother. The bright glitter of his eyes softened; the hard lines of his iron mouth relaxed.
The one tender sentiment of a dark and dangerous nature was this man’s affection for his widowed mother.
He opened the door of an apartment at the back of the house, and entered, followed by Mr. Eversleigh.
Reginald stared in wonder at the chamber in which he found himself. The room had once been a kitchen, and was much larger than any other room in the cottage. Here there was no attempt at either comfort or elegance. The bare, white-washed walls had no adornment but a deal shelf here and there, loaded with strange-looking phials and gallipots. Here all the elaborate paraphernalia of a chemist’s laboratory was visible. Here Reginald Eversleigh beheld stoves, retorts, alembics, distilling apparatus; all the strange machinery of that science which always seems dark and mysterious to the ignorant.
The visitor looked about him in utter bewilderment.
“Why, Victor,” he exclaimed, “your room looks like the laboratory of some alchymist of the Middle Ages — the sort of man people used to burn as a wizard.”
“I am rather an enthusiastic student of my art,” answered the surgeon.
The visitor’s eyes wandered round the room in amazement. Suddenly they alighted on some object on the table near the stove. Carrington perceived the glance, and, with a hasty movement, very unusual to him, dropped his handkerchief upon the object.
The movement, rapid though it was, came too late, for Reginald Eversleigh had distinguished the nature of the object which the surgeon wished to conceal from him.
It was a mask of metal, with glass eyes.
“So you wear a mask when you are at work, eh, Carrington?” said Mr. Eversleigh. “That looks as if you dabble in poisons.”
“Half the agents employed in chemistry are poisonous,” answered Victor, coolly.
“I hope there is no danger in the atmosphere of this room just now?”
“None whatever. Come, Reginald, I am sure you have bad news to tell me, or you would never have taken the trouble to come here.”
“I have, and the worst news. My uncle has married this street ballad~singer.”
“Good; then we must try to turn this marriage to account.”
“By making it the means of bringing about a reconciliation. You will write a letter of congratulation to Sir Oswald — a generous letter — in which you will speak of your penitence, your affection, the anguish you have endured during this bitter period of estrangement. You can venture to speak freely of these things now, you will say, for now that your honoured uncle has found new ties you can no longer be suspected of any mercenary motive. You can now approach him boldly, you will say, for you have henceforward nothing to hope from him except his forgiveness. Then you will wind up with an earnest prayer for his happiness. And if I am not very much out in my reckoning of human nature, that letter will bring about a reconciliation. Do you understand my tactics?”
“I do. You are a wonderful fellow, Carrington.”
“Don’t say that until the day when you are restored to your old position as your uncle’s heir. Then you may pay me any compliment you please.”
“If ever that day arrives, you shall not find me ungrateful.”
“I hope not; and now go back to town and write your letter. I want to see you invited to Raynham Castle to pay your respects to the bride.”
“But why so?”
“I want to know what the bride is like. Our future plans will depend much upon her.”
Before leaving Lorrimore Cottage, Reginald Eversleigh was introduced to his friend’s mother, whom he had never before seen. She was very like her son. She had the same pale, sallow face, the same glittering black eyes. She was slim and tall, with a somewhat stately manner, and with little of the vivacity usual to her countrywomen.
She looked at Mr. Eversleigh with a searching glance — a glance which was often repeated, as he stood for a few minutes talking to her. Nothing which interested her son was without interest for her; and she knew that this young man was his chief friend and companion.
Reginald Eversleigh went back to town in much better spirits than when he had left the West-end that morning. He lost no time in writing the letter suggested by his friend, and, as he was gifted with considerable powers of persuasion, the letter was a good one.
“I believe Carrington is right,” he thought, as he sealed it: “and this letter will bring about a reconciliation. It will reach my uncle at a time when he will be intoxicated with his new position as the husband of a young and lovely bride; and he will be inclined to think kindly of me, and of all the world. Yes — the letter is decidedly a fine stroke of diplomacy.”
Reginald Eversleigh awaited a reply to his epistle with feverish impatience; but an impatience mingled with hope.
His hopes did not deceive him. The reply came by return of post, and was even more favourable than his most sanguine expectations had led him to anticipate.
“Dear Reginald,” wrote the baronet, “your generous and disinterested letter has touched me to the heart. Let the past be forgotten and forgiven. I do not doubt that you have suffered, as all men must suffer, from the evil deeds of their youth.
“You were no doubt surprised to receive the tidings of my marriage. I have consulted my heart alone in the choice which I have made, and I venture to hope that choice will secure the happiness of my future existence. I am spending the first weeks of my married life amidst the lovely solitudes of North Wales. On the 24th of this month, Lady Eversleigh and I go to Raynham, where we shall be glad to see you immediately on our arrival. Come to us, my dear boy; come to me, as if this unhappy estrangement had never arisen, and we will discuss your future together. — Your affectionate uncle, OSWALD EVERSLEIGH.” “Royal Hotel, Bannerdoon, N. W.”
Nothing could be more satisfactory than this epistle. Reginald Eversleigh and Victor Carrington dined together that evening, and the baronet’s letter was freely discussed between them.
“The ground lies all clear before you now,” said the surgeon: “you will go to Raynham, make yourself as agreeable as possible to the bride, win your uncle’s heart by an appearance of extreme remorse for the past, and most complete disinterestedness for the future, and leave all the rest to me.”
“But how the deuce can you help me at Raynham?”
“Time alone can show. I have only one hint to give you at present. Don’t be surprised if you meet me unexpectedly amongst the Yorkshire hills and wolds, and take care to follow suit with whatever cards you see me playing. Whatever I do will be done in your interest, depend upon it. Mind, by the bye, if you do see me in the north, that I know nothing of your visit to Raynham. I shall be as much surprised to see you as you will be to see me.”
“So be it; I will fall into your plans. As your first move has been so wonderfully successful, I shall be inclined to trust you implicitly in the future. I suppose you will want to be paid rather stiffly by and bye, if you do succeed in getting me any portion of Sir Oswald’s fortune?”
“Well, I shall ask for some reward, no doubt. I am a poor man, you know, and do not pretend to be disinterested or generous. However, we will discuss that question when we meet at Raynham.”
On the 28th of July, Reginald Eversleigh presented himself at Raynham Castle. He had thought never more to set foot upon that broad terrace, never more to pass beneath the shadow of that grand old archway; and a sense of triumph thrilled through his veins as he stood once again on the familiar threshold.
And yet his position in life was terribly changed since he had last stood there. He was no longer the acknowledged heir to whom all dependents paid deferential homage. He fancied that the old servants looked at him coldly, and that their greeting was the chilling welcome which is accorded to a poor relation. He had never done much to win affection or gratitude in the days of his prosperity. It may be that he remembered this now, and regretted it, not from any kindly impulse towards these people, but from a selfish annoyance at the chilling reception accorded him.
“If ever I win back what I have lost, these pampered parasites shall suffer for their insolence,” thought the young man, as he walked across the broad Gothic hall of the castle, escorted by the grave old butler.
But he had not much leisure to think about his uncle’s servants. Another and far more important person occupied his mind, and that person was his uncle’s bride.
“Lady Eversleigh is at home?” he asked, while crossing the hall.
“Yes, sir; her ladyship is in the long drawing-room.”
The butler opened a ponderous oaken door, and ushered Reginald into one of the finest apartments in the castle.
In the centre of this room, by the side of a grand piano, from which she had just risen, stood the new mistress of the castle. She was simply dressed in pale gray silk, relieved only by a scarlet ribbon twisted in the masses of her raven hair. Her beauty had the same effect upon Reginald Eversleigh which it exercised on almost all who looked at her for the first time. He was dazzled, bewildered, by the singular loveliness.
“And this divinity — this goddess of grace and beauty, is my uncle’s wife,” he thought; “this is the street ballad-singer whom he picked up out of the gutter.”
For some moments the elegant and accomplished Reginald Eversleigh stood abashed before the calm presence of the nameless girl his uncle had married.
Sir Oswald welcomed his nephew with perfect cordiality. He was happy, and in the hour of his happiness he could cherish no unkind feeling towards the adopted son who had once been so dear to him. But while ready to open his arms to the repentant prodigal, his intentions with regard to the disposition of his wealth had undergone no change. He had arrived, calmly and deliberately, at a certain resolve, and he intended to adhere to that decision.
The baronet told his nephew this frankly in the first confidential conversation which they had after the young man’s arrival at Raynham.
“You may think me harsh and severe,” he said, gravely; “but the resolution which I announced to you in Arlington Street cost me much thought and care. I believe that I have acted for the best. I think that my over-indulgence was the bane of your youth, Reginald, and that you would have been a better man had you been more roughly reared. Since you have left the army, I have heard no more of your follies; and I trust that you have at last struck out a better path for yourself, and separated yourself from all dangerous associates. But you must choose a new profession. You must not live an idle life on the small income which you receive from me. I only intended that annuity as a safeguard against poverty, not as a sufficient means of life. You must select a new career, Reginald; and whatever it may be, I will give you some help to smooth your pathway. Your first cousin, Douglas Dale, is studying for the law — would not that profession suit you?”
“I am in your hands, sir, and am ready to obey you in everything.”
“Well, think over what I have said; and if you choose to enter yourself as a student in the Temple, I will assist you with all necessary funds.”
“My dear uncle, you are too good.”
“I wish to serve you as far as I can with justice to others. And now, Reginald, we will speak no more of the past. What do you think of my wife?”
“She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld.”
“And she is as good and true as she is beautiful — a pearl of price, Reginald. I thank Providence for giving me so great a treasure.”
“And this treasure will be possessor of Raynham Castle, I suppose,” thought the young man, savagely.
Sir Oswald spoke presently, almost as if in answer to his nephew’s thoughts.
“As I have been thoroughly candid with you, Reginald,” he said, “I may as well tell you even more. I am at an age which some call the prime of life, and I feel all my old vigour. But death sometimes comes suddenly to men whose life seems as full of promise as mine seems to me now. I wish that when I die there may be no possible disappointment as to the disposal of my fortune. Other men make a mystery of the contents of their wills. I wish the terms of my will to be known by all interested in it.”
“I have no desire to be enlightened, sir,” murmured Reginald, who felt that his uncle’s words boded no good to himself.
“My will has been made since my marriage,” continued Sir Oswald, without noticing his nephew’s interruption; “any previous will would, indeed, have been invalidated by that event Two-thirds — more than two~thirds — of my property has been left to my wife, who will be a very rich woman when I am dead and gone. Should she have a son, the landed estates will, of course, go to him; but in any case, Lady Eversleigh will be mistress of a large fortune. I leave five thousand a year to each of my nephews. As for you, Reginald, you will, perhaps, consider yourself bitterly wronged; but you must, in justice, remember that you have been your own enemy. The annuity of two hundred a year which you now possess will, after my death, become an income of five hundred a year, derived from a small estate called Morton Grange, in Lincolnshire. You have nothing more than a modest competency to hope for, therefore; and it rests with yourself to win wealth and distinction by the exercise of your own talents.”
The pallor of Reginald Eversleigh’s face alone revealed the passion which consumed him as he received these most unwelcome statements from his uncle’s lips. Fortunately for the young man, Sir Oswald did not observe his countenance, for at this moment Lady Eversleigh appeared on the terrace-walk outside the open window of her husband’s study, and he hurried to her.
“What are to be our plans for this afternoon, darling?” he asked. “I have transacted all my business, and am quite at your service for the rest of the day.”
“Very well, then, you cannot please me better than by showing me some more of the beauties of your native county.”
“You make that proposition because you know it pleases me, artful puss; but I obey. Shall we ride or drive? Perhaps, as the afternoon is hot, we had better take the barouche,” continued Sir Oswald, while Honoria hesitated. “Come to luncheon. I will give all necessary orders.”
They went to the dining-room, whither Reginald accompanied them. Already he had contrived to banish the traces of emotion from his countenance: but his uncle’s words were still ringing in his ears.
Five hundred a year! — he was to receive a pitiful five hundred a year; whilst his cousins — struggling men of the world, unaccustomed to luxury and splendour — were each to have an income of five thousand. And this woman — this base, unknown, friendless creature, who had nothing but her diabolical beauty to recommend her — was to have a splendid fortune!
These were the thoughts which tormented Reginald Eversleigh as he took his place at the luncheon-table. He had been now a fortnight at Raynham Castle, and had become, to all outward appearance, perfectly at his ease with the fair young mistress of the mansion. There are some women who seem fitted to occupy any station, however lofty. They need no teaching; they are in no way bewildered by the novelty of wealth or splendour; they make no errors. They possess an instinctive tact, which all the teaching possible cannot always impart to others. They glide naturally into their position; and, looking on them in their calm dignity, their unstudied grace, it is difficult to believe they have not been born in the purple.
Such a woman was Honoria, Lady Eversleigh. The novelty of her position gave her no embarrassment; the splendour around her charmed and delighted her sense of the beautiful, but it caused her no bewilderment; it did not dazzle her unaccustomed eyes. She received her husband’s nephew with the friendly, yet dignified, bearing which it was fitting Sir Oswald’s wife should display towards his kinsman; and the scrutinizing eyes of the young man sought in vain to detect some secret hidden beneath that placid and patrician exterior.
“The woman is a mystery,” he thought; “one would think she were some princess in disguise. Does she really love my uncle, I wonder? She acts her part well, if it is a false one. But, then, who would not act a part for such a prize as she is likely to win? I wish Victor were here. He, perhaps, might be able to penetrate the secret of her existence. She is a hypocrite, no doubt; and an accomplished one. I would give a great deal for the power to strip the veil from her beautiful face, and show my lady in her true colours!”
Such bitter thoughts as these continually harassed the ambitious and disappointed man. And yet he was able to bear himself with studied courtesy towards Lady Eversleigh. The best people in the county had come to Raynham to pay their homage to Sir Oswald’s bride. Nothing could exceed her husband’s pride as he beheld her courted and admired. No shadow of jealousy obscured his pleasure when he saw younger men flock round her to worship and admire. He felt secure of her love, for she had again and again assured him that her heart had been entirely his even before he declared himself to her. He felt an implicit faith in her purity and innocence.
Such a man as Oswald Eversleigh is not easily moved to jealousy; but with such a man, one breath of suspicion, one word of slander, against the creature he loves, is horrible as the agony of death.
Reginald Eversleigh had shared in all the pleasures and amusements of Sir Oswald and his wife. They had gone nowhere without him since his arrival at the castle; for at present he was the only visitor staying in the house, and the baronet was too courteous to leave him alone.
“After the twelfth we shall have plenty of bachelor visitors,” said Sir Oswald; “and you will find the old place more to your taste, I dare say, Reginald. In the meantime, you must content yourself with our society.”
“I am more than contented, my dear uncle, and do not sigh for the arrival of your bachelor friends; though I dare say I shall on very well with them when they do come.”
“I expect a bevy of pretty girls as well. Do you remember Lydia Graham, the sister of Gordon Graham, of the Fusiliers?”
“Yes, I remember her perfectly.”
“I think there used to be something like a flirtation between you and her.”
Sir Oswald and Lady Eversleigh seated themselves in the barouche; Reginald rode by their side, on a thorough-bred hack out of the Raynham stables.
The scenery within twenty miles of the castle was varied in character and rich in beauty. In the purple distance, to the west of the castle, there was a range of heather-clad hills; and between those hills and the village of Raynham there flowed a noble river, crossed at intervals by quaint old bridges, and bordered by little villages, nestling amid green pastures.
The calm beauty of a rustic landscape, and the grandeur of wilder scenery, were alike within reach of the explorer from the castle.
On this bright August afternoon, Sir Oswald had chosen for the special object of their drive the summit of a wooded hill, whence a superb range of country was to be seen. This hill was called Thorpe Peak, and was about seven miles from the castle.
The barouche stopped at the foot of the hill; the baronet and his wife alighted, and walked up a woody pathway leading to the summit, accompanied by Reginald, who left his horse with the servants.
They ascended the hill slowly, Lady Eversleigh leaning upon her husband’s arm. The pathway wound upward, through plantations of fir, and it was only on the summit that the open country burst on the view of the pedestrian. On the summit they found a gentleman seated on the trunk of a fallen tree, sketching. A light portable colour-box lay open by his side, and a small portfolio rested on his knees.
He seemed completely absorbed in his occupation, for he did not raise his eyes from his work as Sir Oswald and his companions approached. He wore a loose travelling dress, which, in its picturesque carelessness of style, was not without elegance.
A horse was grazing under a group of firs near at hand, fastened to one of the trees by the bridle.
This traveller was Victor Carrington.
“Carrington!” exclaimed Mr. Eversleigh; “whoever would have thought of finding you up here? Sketching too!”
The surgeon lifted his head suddenly, looked at his friend, and burst out laughing, as he rose to shake hands. He looked handsomer in his artistic costume than ever Reginald Eversleigh had seen him look before. The loose velvet coat, the wide linen collar and neckerchief of dark-blue silk, set off the slim figure and pale foreign face.
“You are surprised to see me; but I have still more right to be surprised at seeing you. What brings you here?”
“I am staying with my uncle, Sir Oswald Eversleigh, at Raynham Castle.”
“Ah, to be sure; that superb place within four miles of the village of Abbey wood, where I have taken up my quarters.”
The baronet and his wife had been standing at a little distance from the two young men; but Sir Oswald advanced, with Honoria still upon his arm.
“Introduce me to your friend, Reginald,” he said, in his most cordial manner.
Reginald obeyed, and Victor was presented to Sir Oswald and his wife. His easy and graceful bearing was calculated to make an agreeable impression at the outset, and Sir Oswald was evidently pleased with the appearance and manners of his nephew’s friend.
“You are an artist, I see, Mr. Carrington,” he said, after glancing at the young man’s sketch, which, even in its unfinished state, was no contemptible performance.
“An amateur only, Sir Oswald,” answered Victor. “I am by profession a surgeon; but as yet I have not practised. I find independence so agreeable that I can scarcely bring myself to resign it. I have been wandering about this delightful county for the last week or two, with my sketch-book under my arm — halting for a day or two in any picturesque spot I came upon, and hiring a horse whenever I could get a decent animal. It is a very simple mode of enjoying a holiday; but it suits me.”
“Your taste does you credit. But if you are in my neighbourhood, you must take your horses from the Raynham stables. Where are your present quarters?”
“At the little inn by Abbeywood Bridge.”
“Four miles from the castle. We are near neighbours, Mr. Carrington, according to country habits. You must ride back with us, and dine at Raynham.”
“You are very kind, Sir Oswald; but my dress will preclude —”
“No consequence whatever. We are quite alone just now; and I am sure Lady Eversleigh will excuse a traveller’s toilet. If you are not bent upon finishing this very charming sketch, I shall insist on your returning with us; and you join me in the request, eh, Honoria?”
Lady Eversleigh smiled an assent, and the surgeon murmured his thanks. As yet he had looked little at the baronet’s beautiful wife. He had come to Yorkshire with the intention of studying this woman as a man studies an abstruse and difficult science; but he was too great a tactician to betray any unwonted interest in her. The policy of his life was patience, and in this as in everything else, he waited his opportunity.
“She is very beautiful,” he thought, “and she has made a good market out of her beauty; but it is only the beginning of the story yet — the middle and the end have still to come.”
After this meeting on Thorpe Peak, the surgeon became a constant visitor at Raynham. Sir Oswald was delighted with the young man’s talents and accomplishments; and Victor contrived to win credit by the apparently accidental revelation of his early struggles, his mother’s poverty, his patient studies, and indomitable perseverance. He told of these things without seeming to tell them; a word now, a chance allusion then, revealed the story of his friendless youth. Sir Oswald fancied that such a companion was eminently adapted to urge his nephew onward in the difficult road that leads to fortune and distinction.
“If Reginald had only half your industry, half your perseverance, I should not fear for his future career, Mr. Carrington,” said the baronet, in the course of a confidential conversation with his visitor.
“That will come in good time, Sir Oswald,” answered Victor. “Reginald is a noble fellow, and has a far nobler nature than I can pretend to possess. The very qualities which you are good enough to praise in me are qualities which you cannot expect to find in him. I was a pupil in the stern school of poverty from my earliest infancy, while Reginald was reared in the lap of luxury. Pardon me, Sir Oswald, if I speak plainly; but I must remind you that there are few young men who would have passed honourably through the ordeal of such a change of fortune as that which has fallen on your nephew.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that with most men such a reverse would have been utter ruin of soul and body. An ordinary man, finding all the hopes of his future, all the expectations, which had been a part of his very life, taken suddenly from him, would have abandoned himself to a career of vice; he would have become a blackleg, a swindler, a drunkard, a beggar at the doors of the kinsman who had cast him off. But it was not so with Reginald Eversleigh. From the moment in which he found himself cast adrift by the benefactor who had been more than a father to him, he confronted evil fortune calmly and bravely. He cut the link between himself and extravagant companions. He disappeared from the circles in which he had been admired and courted; and the only grief which preyed upon his generous heart sprang from the knowledge that he had forfeited his uncle’s affection.”
Sir Oswald sighed. For the first time he began to think that it was just possible he had treated his nephew with injustice.
“You are right, Mr. Carrington,” he said, after a pause; “it was a hard trial for any man; and I am proud to think that Reginald passed unscathed through so severe an ordeal. But the resolution at which I arrived a year and a half ago is one that I cannot alter now. I have formed new ties; I have new hopes for the future. My nephew must pay the penalty of his past errors, and must look to his own exertions for wealth and honour. If I die without a direct heir, he will succeed to the baronetcy, and I hope he will try his uttermost to win a fortune by which he may maintain his title.”
There was very little promise in this; but Victor Carrington was, nevertheless, tolerably well satisfied with the result of the conversation. He had sown the seeds of doubt and uncertainty in the baronet’s breast. Time only could bring the harvest. The surgeon was accustomed to work underground, and knew that all such work must be slow and laborious.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47