The place was called the Wizard’s Cave. It was a gigantic grotto, near which flowed a waterfall of surpassing beauty. A wild extent of woodland stretched on one side of this romantic scene; on the other a broad moor spread wide before a range of hills, one of which was crowned by the ruins of an old Norman castle that had stood many a siege in days gone by.
It would have been difficult to select a spot better adapted for a pic~nic; and some of the gentlemen who had ridden over to inspect the scene were rapturous in their praises of its sylvan beauty. The cave lay within ten miles of Raynham. “Just the distance for a delightful drive,” said the ladies — and from the moment that Sir Oswald had proposed the entertainment, there had been perpetual discussion of the arrangements necessary, the probability of fine weather, and the date to be finally chosen. The baronet had proposed this rustic fête when his own heart had been light and happy; now he looked forward to the day with a sickening dread of its weariness. Others would be happy; but the sound of mirthful voices and light laughter would fall with a terrible discordance on the ear of the man whose mind was tortured by hidden doubts. Sir Oswald was too courteous a host to disappoint his visitors. All the preparations for the rustic festival were duly made: and on the appointed morning a train of horses and carriages drew up in a line in the quadrangle of the castle.
It would have been impossible to imagine a brighter picture of English life; and as the guests emerged in groups from the wide, arched doorway, and took their places in the carriages, or sprang lightly into their saddles, the spectacle grew more and more enlivening.
Lydia Graham had done her utmost to surpass all rivals on this important day. Wealthy country squires and rich young lordlings were to be present at the festival, and the husband-huntress might, perchance, find a victim among these eligible bachelors. Deeply as she was already in debt, Miss Graham had written to her French milliner, imploring her to send her a costume regardless of expense, and promising a speedy payment of at least half her long-standing account. The fair and false Lydia did not scruple to hint at the possibility of her making a brilliant matrimonial alliance ere many months were over, in order that this hope might beguile the long-suffering milliner into giving further credit.
The fashionable beauty was not disappointed. The milliner sent the costume ordered, but wrote to inform Miss Graham, with all due circumlocution and politeness, that, unless her long-standing account were quickly settled, legal proceedings must be taken. Lydia threw the letter aside with a frown, and proceeded to inspect her dress, which was perfect in its way.
But Miss Graham could scarcely repress a sigh of envy as she looked at Lady Eversleigh’s more simple toilet, and perceived that, with all its appearance of simplicity, it was twice as costly as her own more gorgeous attire. The jewels, too, were worth more than all the trinkets Lydia possessed; and she knew that the treasures of Lady Eversleigh’s jewel-cases were almost inexhaustible, with such a lavish hand had her husband heaped his gifts upon her.
“Perhaps he will not be so liberal with his presents in future,” thought the malicious and disappointed woman, as she looked at Honoria, and acknowledged to her own envious heart that never had she seen her look more beautiful, more elegant, or more fitted to adorn the position which Miss Graham would willingly have persuaded herself she disgraced. “If he thinks that her love is bestowed upon another, he will scarcely find such delight in future in offering her costly tributes of affection.”
There was a great deal of discussion as to who should occupy the different carriages; but at last all was arranged apparently to every one’s satisfaction. There were many who had chosen to ride; and among the equestrians was Sir Oswald himself.
For the first time in any excursion, the baronet deserted his accustomed place by the side of his wife. Honoria deeply felt the slight involved in this desertion; but she was too proud to entreat him to alter his arrangements. She saw his favourite horse brought round to the broad steps; she saw her husband mount the animal without a word of remonstrance, without so much as a reproachful glance, though her heart was swelling with passionate indignation. And then she took her place in the barouche, and allowed the gentlemen standing near to assist in the arrangement of the shawls and carriage-rugs, which were provided in case of change of weather.
Sir Oswald was not slow to remark that appearance of indifference. When once estrangement has arisen between those who truly love each other, everything tends to widen the breach. The jealous husband had chosen to separate himself from his wife in a sudden impulse of angry distrust; but he was still more angry, still more distrustful, when he saw her apparent carelessness of his desertion.
“She is happier without me,” he thought, bitterly, as he drew his horse on one side, and watched all that took place around the barouche. “Unrestrained by my presence, she will be free to revel in the flatteries of her younger admirers. She will be perfectly happy, for she will forget for a while that she is chained for life to a husband whom she does not love.”
A silvery laugh from Honoria seemed to answer his thoughts, and to confirm his suspicions. He little dreamed that laugh was assumed, in order to deceive the malicious Lydia, who had just uttered a polite little speech, intended to wound the mistress of Raynham.
The baronet kept his horse a little way behind the carriage, and watched his wife with jealous and angry eyes.
Lydia Graham had taken her seat in the barouche, and there was now a slight discussion as to the gentlemen who should accompany the two ladies. Many were eager for the privilege, and the occasion was a fitting one for the display of feminine coquetry. Miss Graham did not neglect the opportunity; and after a little animated conversation between the lady and a young fop who was heir to a peerage, the lordling took his place opposite the fashionable beauty.
The second place still remained unoccupied. The baronet waited with painful eagerness to see who would take this place, for amongst the gentlemen grouped about the door of the carriage was Victor Carrington.
Sir Oswald had not to wait long. He ground his teeth in a sudden access of jealous fury as he saw the young surgeon step lightly into the vehicle, and seat himself opposite Lady Eversleigh. He took it for granted that it was on that lady’s invitation the young man occupied this place of honour. He did not for a moment imagine that it was at Lydia Graham’s entreaty the surgeon had taken his seat in the barouche. And yet it was so.
“Do come with us, Mr. Carrington,” Lydia had said. “I know that you are well versed in county history and archaeology, and will be able to tell us all manner of interesting facts connected with the villages and churches we pass on our road.”
Lydia Graham hated Honoria for having won the proud position she herself had tried so hard to attain; she hated Sir Oswald for having chosen another in preference to herself; and she was determined to be revenged on both. She knew that her hints had already had their effect on the baronet; and she now sought, by every base and treacherous trick, to render Honoria Eversleigh an object of suspicion in the eyes of her husband. She had a double game to play; for she sought at once to gratify her ambition and her thirst for revenge. On one hand she wished to captivate Lord Sumner Howden; on the other she wanted to widen the gulf between Sir Oswald and his wife.
She little knew that she was only playing into the hands of a deeper and more accomplished schemer than herself. She little thought that Victor Carrington’s searching glance had penetrated the secrets of her heart; and that he watched her malicious manoeuvres with a calm sense of amusement.
Though August had already given place to September, the weather was warm and balmy, as in the full glory of midsummer.
Sir Oswald rode behind Lady Eversleigh’s barouche, too remote to hear the words that were spoken by those who occupied the vehicle; but quite near enough to distinguish the tones and the laughter, and to perceive every gesture. He saw Victor bend forward to address Honoria. He saw that deferential and devoted manner which had so much offended him since he had first set himself to watch the surgeon. And Lady Eversleigh did not discourage her admirer; she let him talk; she seemed interested in his conversation; and as Lydia Graham and Lord Howden were entirely occupied with each other, the conversation between Honoria was a complete tête-à-tête. The young man’s handsome head bent lower and lower over the plumed hat of Lady Eversleigh; and with every step of that ten-mile journey, the cloud that overshadowed the baronet’s mind grew more profound in its fatal gloom. He no longer struggled against his doubts — he abandoned himself altogether to the passion that held possession of him.
But the eyes of the world were on Sir Oswald, and he was obliged to meet those unpitying eyes with a smile. The long line of equipages drew up at last on the margin of a wood; the pleasure-seekers alighted, and wandered about in twos and threes amongst the umbrageous pathways which led towards the Wizard’s Cave.
After alighting from the barouche, Lady Eversleigh waited to see if her husband would approach her, and offer his arm; she had a faint hope that he would do so, even in spite of his evident estrangement; but her hope was cruelly disappointed. Sir Oswald walked straight to a portly dowager, and offered to escort her to the cave.
“Do you remember a pic-nic here twenty years ago, at which you and I danced together by moon-light, Lady Hetherington?” he said. “We old folks have pleasant memories of the past, and are the fittest companions for each other. The young people can enjoy themselves much better without the restraint of our society.”
He said this loud enough for his wife to hear. She did hear every word, and felt there was hidden significance in that careless speech. For a moment she was inclined to break down the icy barrier of reserve. The words which she wanted to speak were almost on her lips, “Let me go with you, Oswald.” But in the next instant she met her husband’s eyes, and their cold gaze chilled her heart.
At the same moment Victor Carrington offered her his arm, with his accustomed deferential manner. She accepted the proffered arm, scarcely knowing who offered it, so deeply did she feel her husband’s unkindness.
“What have I done to offend him?” she thought. “What is this cruel mystery which divides us, and which is almost breaking my heart?”
“Come, Lady Eversleigh,” cried several voices; “we want you to accompany us to the Wizard’s Cave.”
Nothing could be more successful than the pic-nic. Elegantly dressed women and aristocratic-looking men wandered here and there amidst the woodland, and by the margin of the waterfall; sometimes in gay little parties, whose talk and laughter rang out clearly on the balmy air; sometimes strolling tête-à-tête, and engaged in conversations of a more confidential character. Half-hidden by the foliage of a little thicket of pollard oaks, there was a military band, whose services Sir Oswald had obtained from a garrison-town some twenty miles from Raynham, and the stirring music added much to the charm of the festival.
Lydia Graham was as happy as it is possible for any evil-minded woman to be. Her envious feelings were lulled to temporary rest by the enjoyment of her own triumphs; for the young lordling seemed to be completely subjugated by her charms, and devoted himself exclusively to attendance upon her.
The scheming beauty’s heart thrilled with a sense of triumph. She thought that she had at last made a conquest that might be better worth the making than any of those past conquests, which had all ended in such bitter disappointments.
She looked at Lady Eversleigh with flashing eyes, as she remembered that by the subjugation of this empty-headed young nobleman she might attain a higher position and greater wealth than that enjoyed by Sir Oswald’s envied wife.
“As Lady Sumner Howden, I could look down upon the mistress of Raynham Castle,” she thought. “As Countess of Vandeluce, I should take precedence of nobler women than Lady Eversleigh.”
The day waned. The revellers lingered long over the splendid collation, served in a marquee which had been sent from York for the occasion. The banquet seemed a joyous one, enlivened by the sound of laughter, the popping of champagne corks, the joyous talk that emanated alike from the really light-hearted and those whose gaiety is only a mockery and a sham. The sun was sloping westward when Lady Eversleigh arose, absent and despondent, to give the signal for the withdrawal of the ladies.
As she did so, she looked to the other end of the marquee — to the table where her husband had been seated. To her surprise, his place was empty.
Throughout the whole day Honoria had been a prey to gloomy forebodings. The estrangement between herself and her husband was so unexpected, so inexplicable, that she was powerless to struggle against the sense of misery and bewilderment which it had occasioned in her mind.
Again and again she asked herself what had she done to offend him; again and again she pondered over the smallest and most insignificant actions — the lightest words — of the past few weeks, in order to discover some clue to the mystery of Sir Oswald’s altered conduct.
But the past afforded her no such clue. She had said nothing, she had done nothing, which could offend the most sensitive of men.
Then a new and terrible light began to dawn upon her. She remembered her wretched extraction — the pitiable condition in which the baronet had discovered her, and she began to think that he repented of his marriage. “He regrets his folly, and I am hateful in his eyes,” thought Honoria, “for he remembers my degraded position — the mystery of my past life. He has heard sneering words and cruel innuendoes fall from the lips of his fashionable friends, perhaps; and he is ashamed of his marriage. He little knows how gladly I would release him from the tie that binds us — if, indeed, it has grown hateful to him.” Thus musing and wandering alone, in one of the forest pathways — for she had outstripped her guests, and sought a little relief for her overwrought spirits, constrained to the courtesies of her position for the moment — she scarcely knew whither, she came presently upon a group of grooms, who were lounging before a rough canvas tent, which had been erected for the accommodation of the horses.
“Is ‘Orestes’ in that tent, Plummer?” she asked of the old groom who generally attended her in her rides and drives.
“No, my lady, Sir Oswald had him saddled a quarter of an hour ago, and rode him away.”
“Sir Oswald has gone away!”
“Yes, my lady. He got a message, I think, while he was sitting at dinner, and he rode off as fast as he could go, across th’ moor — it’s the nighest way to the castle, you know, my lady; though it ain’t the pleasantest.”
Honoria grew very uneasy. What was the meaning of this sudden departure?
“Do you know who brought the message from Raynham?” she asked the groom.
“No, indeed, my lady. I don’t even know for sure and certain that the message was from Raynham. I only guess as much.”
“Why did not Sir Oswald take you with him?”
“I can’t say, my lady. I asked master if I wasn’t to go with him, and he said, ‘No, he would rather be alone.’” This was all that Honoria could learn from the groom. She walked back towards the marquee, whence the sound of voices and laughter grew louder as the sun sank across the broad expanse of moorland.
The ladies of the party had gathered together on a broad patch of velvet greensward, near the oak thicket where the band was stationed. Here the younger members of the party were waltzing merrily to the accompaniment of one of Strauss’s sweetest waltzes; while the elders sat here and there on camp-stools or fallen logs of trees, and looked on, or indulged in a little agreeable gossip.
Honoria Eversleigh made her way unobserved to the marquee, and approached one of the openings less used and less crowded than the others. Here she found a servant, whom she sent into the marquee with a message for Mr. Eversleigh, to inquire if he could explain Sir Oswald’s sudden departure.
The man entered the tent, in obedience to his mistress; and Lady Eversleigh seated herself on a camp-stool, at a little distance, awaiting the issue of her message.
She had been waiting only a few moments, when she saw Victor Carrington approaching her hurriedly — not from the marquee, but from the pathway by which she herself had come. There was an unwonted agitation about his manner as he approached her, which, in her present state of nervous apprehension, filled her with alarm.
She went to meet him, pale and trembling.
“I have been looking for you everywhere, Lady Eversleigh,” he said, hurriedly.
“You have been looking for me? Something has happened then-Sir Oswald —”
“Yes, it is, unhappily, of Sir Oswald I have to speak.”
“Speak quickly, then. What has happened? You are agonizing me, Mr. Carrington — for pity’s sake, speak! Your face fills me with fear!”
“Your fears are, unhappily, too well founded. Sir Oswald has been thrown from his horse, on his way across the moor, and lies dangerously hurt, at the ruins of Yarborough Tower — that black building on the edge of the moor yonder. A lad has just brought me the tidings.”
“Let me go to him — for heaven’s sake, let me go at once! Dangerously hurt — he is dangerously hurt, you say?”
“I fear so, from the boy’s account.”
“And we have no medical man among our company. Yes; you are a surgeon — you can be of assistance.”
“I trust so, my dear Lady Eversleigh. I shall hurry to Sir Oswald immediately, and in the meantime they have sent from the tower for medical help.”
“I must go to him!” said Honoria, wildly. “Call the servants, Mr. Carrington! My carriage — this moment!”
She could scarcely utter the words in her excitement. Her voice had a choking sound, and but for the surgeon’s supporting arm she must have fallen prone on the grass at his feet.
As she clung to his arm, as she gasped out her eager entreaties that he would take her to her husband, a faint rustling stirred the underwood beneath some sycamores at a little distance, and curious eyes peered through the foliage.
Lydia Graham had happened to stroll that way. Her curiosity had been excited by the absence of Lady Eversleigh from among her guests, and, being no longer occupied by her flirtation with the young viscount, she had set out in search of the missing Honoria.
She was amply rewarded for her trouble by the scene which she beheld from her hiding-place among the sycamores.
She saw Victor and Lady Eversleigh talking to each other with every appearance of agitation; she saw the baronet’s wife clinging, in some wild terror, to the arm of the surgeon; and she began to think that Honoria Eversleigh was indeed the base and guilty wretch she would fain have represented her.
Lydia Graham was too far from the two figures to hear a word that was spoken. She could only watch their gestures, and draw her own inferences therefrom.
“My carriage, Mr. Carrington!” repeated Honoria; “why don’t you call the servants?”
“One moment, Lady Eversleigh,” said the surgeon, calmly. “You must remember, that on such an occasion as this, there is nothing so important as presence of mind — self-command. If I alarm your servants, all the guests assembled here will take the alarm; and they will rush helter-skelter to Yarborough Tower, to testify their devotion to Sir Oswald, and to do him all the harm they possibly can. What would be the effect of a crowd of half-drunken men, clustering round him, with their noisy expressions of sympathy? What I have to propose is this: I am going to Sir Oswald immediately in my medical capacity. I have a gig and horse ready, under that group of fir-trees yonder — the fastest horse and lightest vehicle I could find. If you will trust yourself in that vehicle behind that horse, I will drive you across the moor, and we shall reach the ruins in half an hour. Have you courage to come with me thus, Lady Eversleigh, quietly, unobserved by any one? — or will you wait for your barouche; and wait until the revellers yonder are all ready to start with you?”
The voices came loudly from the marquee as the surgeon spoke; and Honoria felt that he spoke wisely.
“You are right,” she said; “these people must know nothing of the accident until my husband is safely back at Raynham. But you had better go and tell Plummer, the groom, to send the barouche after us. A carriage will be wanted to convey Sir Oswald from the tower, if he is fit to be moved.”
“True,” answered Victor; “I will see to it.”
“And quickly!” cried Lady Eversleigh; “go quickly, I implore. You will find me by the fir-trees when you return, ready to start with you! Do not waste time in words, Mr. Carrington. Remember, it is a matter of life and death.”
Victor left her, and she walked to the little grove of firs, where she found the gig of which he had spoken, and the horse standing near it, ready harnessed, and with his bridle fastened to a tree.
Two pathways led to this fir-grove — a lower and an upper — the upper completely screened by brushwood. Along this upper pathway, which was on the edge of a sloping bank, Lydia Graham made her way, careless what injury she inflicted on her costly dress, so eager was she to discover whither lady Eversleigh was going. Completely hidden from Honoria, though at only a few paces’ distance, Miss Graham waited to watch the proceedings of the baronet’s wife.
She was mystified by the appearance of the gig and horse, stationed in this out-of-the-way spot. She was still more mystified when she saw Lady Eversleigh clasp her hands before her face, and stand for a few moments, motionless and statue-like, as if abandoned to despair.
“What does it all mean?” Miss Graham asked herself. “Surely she cannot intend to elope with this Carrington. She may be wicked; but she cannot be so insane as to throw away wealth and position for the sake of this foreign adventurer.”
She waited, almost breathless with excitement, crouching amongst the brushwood at the top of the woody bank, and looking downward towards the fir-grove, with watchful eyes. She had not to wait long. Victor appeared in a few minutes, out of breath from running.
“Have you given orders about the carriage?”
“Yes, I have given all necessary orders.”
No more was said. Victor handed Lady Eversleigh into the vehicle, and drove away — slowly while they were still on the edge of the wood; but accelerating his pace as they emerged upon the moorland.
“It is an elopement!” exclaimed Miss Graham, whose astonishment was unbounded. “It is an elopement! The infamous creature has gone off with that penniless young man. And now, Sir Oswald, I think you will have good reason to repent your fine romantic marriage with a base-born adventuress, whom nobody ever heard of until she burst forth upon the world as Lady Eversleigh of Raynham Castle.”
Filled with the triumphant delight of gratified malice, Lydia Graham went back to the broad greensward by the Wizard’s Cave. The gentlemen had now left the marquee; the full moon was rising, round and yellow, on the horizon, like a great globe of molten gold. Preparations had already commenced for the return, and the younger members of the party were busy discussing the arrangements of the homeward drive.
That moonlight drive was looked forward to as one of the chief pleasures of the excursion; it would afford such glorious opportunities for flirtation. It would enable romantic young ladies to quote so much poetry about the moon and the summer night, while poetically-disposed young gentlemen replied in the same strain. All was animation and excitement. The champagne and burgundy, the sparkling hock and moselle, which had been consumed in the marquee, had only rendered the majority of the gentlemen more gallant and agreeable; and softly-spoken compliments, and tender pressures of pretty little delicately-gloved hands, testified to the devotion of the cavaliers who were to escort the band of fair ones homeward.
Lydia Graham hoped that she would be able to take up the thread of her flirtation with Lord Howden exactly where it had dropped when she had risen to leave the dinner-table. She had thought it even possible that, if she could secure a tête-à-tête drive home with the weak-brained young nobleman, she might lure him on until he made a formal proposal, from which he would find it no easy matter to recede; for Captain Graham was at his sister’s call, and was a gentleman of no very yielding temper where his own interests were at stake. He had long been anxious that his sister should make a wealthy marriage, for her debts and difficulties annoyed him; and he felt that if she were well married, he would be able to borrow money of her, instead of being pestered by her applications for assistance.
Miss Graham was doomed to endure a disappointment. Lord Sumner Howden was one of the few gentleman upon whom iced champagne and moselle had produced anything but an exhilarating effect. He was dull and stupid, pallid and sleepy; like some great, greedy school-boy who has over~eaten himself, and is suffering the consequences of his gluttony.
The fair Lydia had the mortification of hearing him tell one of the grooms to put him into a close carriage, where he could have a nap on his way home.
Reginald Eversleigh took the lordling’s seat in the barouche, which was the first in the line of carriages for the homeward journey, in spite of Honoria’s entreaties to Victor Carrington. The young man was almost as dull and stupid, to all appearance, as Lord Sumner Howden; but, although he had been drinking deeply, intoxication had nothing to do with his gloomy silence.
He knew that Carrington’s scheme had been ripening day by day; and he knew also that within a few hours the final blow was to be struck. He did not know the nature of that intended stroke of treachery; but he was aware that it would involve misery and humiliation for Sir Oswald, utter ruin and disgrace for Honoria. The very uncertainty as to the nature of the cruel plot made it all the more dreadful; and he waited with no very pleasant feelings for the development of his friend’s scheme.
When all was ready for the start, it was discovered that “dear Lady Eversleigh” was missing. Servants were sent in every direction to search for her; but with no avail. Sir Oswald was also missed; but Plummer, the old groom, informed Mr. Eversleigh that his uncle had left some hours before; and as some of the party had seen the baronet leave the dinner-table, in compliance with a sudden summons, this occasioned little surprise.
The next person missed was Victor Carrington. It was Lydia who drew attention to the fact of his absence.
The party waited an hour, while search for Lady Eversleigh was renewed in every direction, while many of the guests expressed their fears that something must have happened to her — that she had wandered too far, and lost her way in the wood — or that she had missed her footing on the edge of one of the deep pools by the cavern, and had fallen into the water — or that she had been attacked by ruffians.
But in due time it was discovered that Mr. Carrington had been seen to take a gig from amongst the vehicles; and a lad, who had been in charge of the gig and the horse belonging to it, told the other servants that Mr. Carrington had said he wanted the vehicle to drive Lady Eversleigh home. She was tired, Mr. Carrington had said, and wanted to go home quietly.
This information was brought to Reginald by one of the upper servants; and the question of Lady Eversleigh’s disappearance being at once set at rest, the procession of carriages moved away in the moonlight.
“It was really too bad of dear Lady Eversleigh to give us such unnecessary alarm,” said Lydia Graham.
The lady who had taken the second place in the barouche agreed with this remark.
“I never was more alarmed in my life,” she said. “I felt sure that something very dreadful must have happened.”
“And to think that Lady Eversleigh should prefer going home in a gig,” said Lydia, maliciously; “for my part, I think a gig a most unpleasant vehicle.”
The other lady whispered something about Lady Eversleigh’s humble extraction, and her ignorance of the usages of society.
“You can’t wonder at it, my dear,” she murmured. “For my part, I was surprised to see her so much at her ease in her new position. But, you see, her ignorance has now betrayed her into a terrible breach of the proprieties. Her conduct is, to say the least of it, most eccentric; and you may depend, no one here will ever forget this ride home in a gig with that clever young surgeon. I don’t suppose Sir Oswald will very much approve of such conduct.”
“Nor I,” said Lydia, in the same subdued tone. “Poor Sir Oswald! What could he expect when he disgraced himself by such a marriage?”
Reginald Eversleigh leaned back in the carriage, with his arum folded, and his eyes fixed on vacancy, while the ladies gossipped in whispers.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05