No sooner had Victor Carrington got completely clear of the wood, than he drove his horse at a gallop.
The light gig swayed from side to side, and jolted violently several times on crossing some obstruction in the way.
“You are not afraid?” asked Victor.
“I am only afraid of delay,” answered Honoria, calmly; for by this time she had recovered much of her ordinary firmness, and was prepared to face her sorrow with at least outward tranquillity. “Tell me, Mr. Carrington, have you reason to think that my husband is in great danger?”
“I can tell you nothing for certain. You know how stupid the country people are. The boy who brought the message told me that the gentleman had been thrown from his horse, and was very much hurt. He was insensible, and was injured about the head. I gathered from this, and from the boy’s manner, rather than his words, that the injuries were very serious.”
“Why was Sir Oswald taken to such a wretched place as a ruined tower?”
“Because the accident happened near the ruin; and your husband was found by the people who have charge of the tower.”
“And could they take him to no better place?”
“No. There is no habitation of any kind within three miles.”
No more was said. It was not very easy to talk while flying through the air at the utmost speed of a spirited horse.
The moon bathed the broad moorland in mellow light. The wide expanse of level turf looked like a sea of black water that had suddenly been frozen into stillness. Not a tree — not a patch of brushwood, or a solitary bush — broke the monotony of the scene: but far away against the moonlit horizon rose a wild and craggy steep, and on the summit of that steep appeared a massive tower, with black and ruined battlements, that stood out grimly against the luminous sky.
This was Yarborough Tower — a stronghold that had defied many a besieging force in the obscure past; but of the origin of which little was now known.
Victor Carrington drove the gig up a rough and narrow road that curved around the sides of the craggy hill, and wound gradually towards the top.
He was obliged to drive slowly here, and Lady Eversleigh had ample leisure to gaze upwards at the dreary-looking ruin, whose walls seemed more densely black as they grew nearer and nearer.
“What a horrible place!” she murmured. “To think of my husband lying there — with no better shelter than those ruined walls in the hour of his suffering.”
Honoria Eversleigh looked around her with a shudder, as the gig passed across a narrow wooden drawbridge that spanned an enormous chasm in the craggy hill-side.
She looked up at the tower. All was dark, and the dismal cry of a raven suddenly broke the awful stillness with a sound that was even yet more awful.
“Why are there no lights in the windows?” she asked; “surely Sir Oswald is not lying in the darkness?”
“I don’t know. The chamber in which they have placed him may be on the other side of the tower,” answered Victor, briefly. “And now, Lady Eversleigh, you must alight. We can go no further with the vehicle, and I must take it back to the other side of the drawbridge.”
They had reached the entrance of the tower, an archway of solid masonry, over which the ivy hung like a sombre curtain.
Honoria alighted, and passed under the black shadow of the arch.
“You had better wait till I return, Lady Eversleigh,” said Victor. “You will scarcely find your way without my help.”
Honoria obeyed. Anxious as she was to reach Sir Oswald without a moment’s unnecessary delay, she felt herself powerless to proceed without a guide — so dark was the interior of the tower. She heard the ravens shrieking hoarsely in the battlements above, and the ivy flapping in the evening wind; but she could hear nothing else.
Victor came back to her in a few minutes. As he rejoined her, there was a noise of some ponderous object falling, with a grating and rattling of heavy chains; but Lady Eversleigh was too much absorbed by her own anxieties to feel any curiosity as to the origin of the sound.
“Come,” said Victor; “give me your hand, Lady Eversleigh, and let me guide you.”
She placed her hand in that of the surgeon. He led her to a steep staircase, formed by blocks of solid stone, which were rendered slippery by the moss that had gathered on them. It was a winding staircase, built in a turret which formed one angle of the tower. Looking upwards, Honoria saw a gap in the roof, through which the moonlight shone bright. But there was no sign of any other light.
“Where is my husband?” she asked. “I see no lights; I hear no voices; the place seems like a tomb.”
Victor Carrington did not answer her question.
“Come,” he said, in a commanding voice. “Follow me, Lady Eversleigh.”
He still held her hand, and she obeyed him, making her way with some difficulty up the steep and winding staircase.
At last she found herself at the top. A narrow doorway opened before her; and following her companion through this doorway, she emerged on the roof of the tower.
Around her were the ruined battlements, broken away altogether here and there; below her was the craggy hill-side, sloping downwards to the wide expanse of the moorland; above her was the purple sky, flooded with the calm radiance of the moon; but there was no sign of human habitation, no sound of a human voice.
“Where is my husband, Mr. Carrington?” she cried, with a wild alarm, which had but that moment taken possession of her. “This ruin is uninhabited. I saw the empty rooms, through gaps in the broken wall as we came up that staircase. Where is my husband?”
“At Raynham Castle, Lady Eversleigh, to the best of my knowledge,” answered the surgeon, with imperturbable calmness.
He had seated himself on one of the broken battlements, in a lounging attitude, with one arm leaning on the ruined stone, and he was looking quietly out at the solitary expanse of barren waste sleeping beneath the moonlight.
Lady Eversleigh looked at him with a countenance that had grown rigid with horror and alarm.
“My husband at Raynham — at Raynham!” she repeated, as if she could not credit the evidence of her own ears. “Am I mad, or are you mad, Mr. Carrington? My husband at Raynham Castle, you say?”
“I cannot undertake to answer positively for the movements of any gentleman; but I should say that, at this present moment, Sir Oswald Eversleigh is in his own house, for which he started some hours ago.”
“Then why am I here?”
“To answer that question clearly will involve the telling of a long story, Lady Eversleigh,” answered Victor. “My motive for bringing you here concerns myself and another person. You are here to farther the interests of two people, and those two people are Reginald Eversleigh and your humble servant.”
“But the accident? Sir Oswald’s danger —”
“I must beg you not to give yourself any further alarm on that subject. I regret very much that I have been obliged to inflict unnecessary pain upon a lady. The story of the accident is a little invention of my own. Sir Oswald is perfectly safe.”
“Thank heaven!” cried Honoria, clasping her hands in the fervour of sudden gratitude; “thank heaven for that!”
Her face looked beautiful, as she lifted it towards the moonlit sky. Victor Carrington contemplated her with wonder.
“Can it be possible that she loves this man?” he thought. “Can it be that she has not been acting a part after all?”
Her first thought, on hearing that she had been deceived, was one of unmingled joy, of deep and heartfelt gratitude. Her second thought was of the shameful trick that had been played upon her; and she turned to Victor Carrington with passionate indignation.
“What is the meaning of this juggling, sir?” she cried; “and why have I been brought to this place?”
“It is a long story, Lady Eversleigh, and I would recommend you to calm yourself before you listen to it, if you have any wish to understand me clearly.”
“I can stop to listen to no long stories, sir. Your trick is a shameful and unmanly one, whatever its motive. I beg that you will take me back to Raynham without a moment’s delay; and I would advise you to comply with my request, unless you wish to draw upon yourself Sir Oswald’s vengeance for the wrong you have done me. I am the last person in the world to involve my husband in a quarrel; but if you do not immediately take steps towards restoring me to my own home, I shall certainly let him know how deeply I have been wronged and insulted.”
“I am not afraid of your husband, my dear Lady Eversleigh,” answered the surgeon, with cool insolence; “for I do not think Sir Oswald will care to take up the cudgels in your defence, after the events of to~night.”
Honoria Eversleigh looked at the speaker with unutterable scorn, and then turned towards the doorway which communicated with the staircase.
“Since you refuse to assist in my return, I will go alone and unassisted,” she said.
Victor raised his hand with a warning gesture.
“Do not attempt to descend that staircase, my dear Lady Eversleigh,” he said. “In the first place, the steps are slippery, and the descent very dangerous; and, in the next, you would find yourself unable to go beyond the archway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oblige me by looking down through that breach in the battlements.”
He had risen from his lounging position, and pointed downward as he spoke.
Involuntarily Honoria followed the indication of his hand.
A cry of horror broke from her lips as she looked below. The drawbridge no longer spanned the chasm. It had fallen, and hung over the edge of the abyss, suspended by massive chains. On all sides of the tower yawned a gulf of some fifteen feet wide.
At first Lady Eversleigh thought that this chasm might only be on one side of the ruin, but on rushing to the opposite battlements, and looking down, she saw that it was a moss-grown stone-moat, which completely encircled the stronghold.
“The warriors of old knew how to build their fortresses, and how to protect themselves from their foes,” said Victor Carrington, as if in answer to his companion’s despairing cry. “Those who built this edifice and dug that moat, little knew how useful their arrangements would be in these degenerate days. Do not pace to and fro with that distracted air, Lady Eversleigh. Believe me, you will do wisely to take things quietly. You are doomed to remain here till daybreak. This ruin is in the care of a man who leaves it at a certain hour every evening. When he leaves, he drops the drawbridge — you must have heard him do it a little while ago — and no hand but his can raise the chains that support it; for he only knows the secret of their machinery. He has left the place for the night. He lives three miles and a half away, at a little village yonder, which looks only a black speck in the distance, and he will not return till some time after daybreak.”
“And you would keep me a prisoner here — you would detain me in this miserable place, while my husband is, no doubt, expecting me at Raynham, perplexed and bewildered by my mysterious absence?”
“Yes, Lady Eversleigh, there will be wonder and perplexity enough on your account to-night at Raynham Castle.”
There was a pause after this.
Honoria sank upon a block of fallen stone, bewildered, terror~stricken, for the moment powerless to express either her fears or her indignation, so strange, so completely inexplicable was the position in which she found herself.
“I am in the power of a maniac,” she murmured; “no one but a maniac could be capable of this wild act. My life is in the power of a madman. I can but wait the issue. Let me be calm. Oh, merciful heaven, give me fortitude to face my danger quietly!”
The strength she prayed for seemed to come with the prayer.
The wild beating of her heart slackened a little. She swept the heavy masses of hair away from her forehead, and bound the fallen plaits in a knot at the back of her head. She did this almost as calmly as if she had been making her toilet in her dressing-room at Raynham. Victor Carrington watched her with surprise.
“She is a wonderful woman,” he said to himself; “a noble creature. As powerful in mind as she is lovely in person. What a pity that I should make myself the enemy of this woman for the sake of such a mean~spirited hound as Reginald Eversleigh! But my interests compel me to run counter to my inclination. It is a great pity. With this woman as my ally, I might have done greater things than I shall ever do by myself.”
Victor Carrington mused thus while Honoria Eversleigh sat on the edge of the broken wall, at a few paces from him, looking calmly out at the purple sky.
She fully believed that she had fallen into the power of a maniac. What, except madness, could have prompted such conduct as that of Victor Carrington’s?
She knew that there is no defence so powerful as an appearance of calmness; and it was with tranquillity she addressed her companion, after that interval of deliberation.
“Now, Mr. Carrington,” she said, “since it seems I am your prisoner, perhaps you will be good enough to inform me why you have brought me to this place, and what injury I have ever done you that you should inflict so deep a wrong on me?”
“You have never injured me, Lady Eversleigh,” replied Victor Carrington; “but you have injured one who is my friend, and whose interests are closely linked with mine.”
“Who is that friend?”
“Reginald Eversleigh!” repeated Honoria, with amazement. “In what manner have I injured Reginald Eversleigh? Is he not my husband’s nephew, and am I not bound to feel interest in his welfare? How, then, can I have injured him?”
“You have done him the worst wrong that one individual can do another — you stand between him and fortune. Do you not know that, little more than a year ago, Reginald Eversleigh was the heir to Raynham and all its surroundings?”
“I know that; but he was disinherited before I crossed his uncle’s pathway.”
“True; but had you not crossed Sir Oswald’s path, there is no doubt Reginald would have been restored to favour. But you have woven your spells round his kinsman, and his only hope lies in your disgrace —”
“Yes, Lady Eversleigh. Life is a battle, in which the weakest must be trodden down; you have triumphed hitherto, but the hour of your triumph is past. Yesterday you were queen of Raynham Castle; to-morrow no kitchen-wench within its walls will be so low as you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Honoria, more and more mystified every moment by her companion’s words.
For the first time, an awful fear took possession of her, and she began to perceive that she was the victim of a foul and villanous plot.
“What do you mean?” she repeated, in accents of alarm.
“I mean this, Lady Eversleigh — the world judges of people’s actions by their outward seeming, not by their inward truth. Appearances have conspired to condemn you. Before to-morrow every creature in Raynham Castle will believe that you have fled from your home, and with me —”
“Fled from my home!”
“Yes; how else can your absence to-night — your sudden disappearance from the pic-nic — be construed?”
“If I live, I shall go back to the castle at daybreak to-morrow morning — go back to denounce your villany — to implore my husband’s vengeance on your infamy!”
“And do you think any one will believe your denunciation? You will go back too late Lady Eversleigh.”
“Oh, villain! villain!” murmured Honoria, in accents of mingled abhorrence and despair — abhorrence of her companion’s infamy, despair inspired by the horror of her own position.
“You have played for a very high stake, Lady Eversleigh,” said the surgeon; “and you must not wonder if you have found opponents ready to encounter your play with a still more desperate, and a still more dexterous game. When a nameless and obscure woman springs from poverty and obscurity to rank and riches, she must expect to find others ready to dispute the prize which she has won.”
“And there can exist a wretch calling himself a man, and yet capable of such an act as this!” cried Honoria, looking upward to the calm and cloudless sky, as if she would have called heaven to witness the iniquity of her enemy. “Do not speak to me, sir,” she added, turning to Victor Carrington, with unutterable scorn. “I believed a few minutes ago that you were a madman, and I thought myself the victim of a maniac’s folly. I understand all now. You have plotted nobly for your friend’s service; and he will, no doubt, reward you richly if you succeed. But you have not yet succeeded. Providence sometimes seems to favour the wicked. It his favoured you, so far; but the end has not come yet.”
She turned from him and walked to the opposite side of the tower. Here she seated herself on the battlemented wall, as calm, in outward seeming, as if she had been in her own drawing-room. She took out a tiny jewelled watch; by that soft light she could perceive the figures on the dial.
It was a few minutes after one o’clock. It was not likely that the man who had charge of the ruins would come to the tower until seven or eight in the morning. For six or seven hours, therefore, Honoria Eversleigh was likely to be a prisoner — for six or seven hours she would have to endure the hateful presence of the man whose treachery had placed her in this hideous position.
Despair reigned in her heart, entire and overwhelming despair. When released from her prison, she might hurry back to the castle. But who would believe a story so wild, so improbable, as that which she would have to tell?
Would her husband believe her? Would he, who had to all appearance withdrawn his love from her for no reason whatever — would he believe in her purity and truth, when circumstances conspired in damning evidence of her guilt? A sense of hopeless misery took possession of her heart; but no cry of anguish broke from her pale lips. She sat motionless as a statue, with her eyes fixed upon the eastern horizon, counting the moments as they passed with cruel slowness, watching with yearning gaze for the first glimmer of morning.
Victor Carrington contemplated that statuesque figure, that pale and tranquil face, with unalloyed admiration. Until to-night he had despised women as frail, helpless creatures, only made to be flattered by false words, and tyrannized over by stronger natures than their own. Among all the women with whom he had ever been associated, his mother was the only one in whose good sense he had believed, or for whose intellect he had felt the smallest respect. But now he beheld a woman of another stamp — a woman whose pride and fortitude were akin to the heroic.
“You endure the unpleasantness of your position nobly, Lady Eversleigh,” he said; “and I can find no words to express my admiration of your conduct. It is very hard to find oneself the enemy of a lady, and, above all, of a lady whose beauty and whose intellect are alike calculated to inspire admiration. But in this world, Lady Eversleigh, there is only one rule — only one governing principle by which men regulate their lives — let them seek as they will to mask the truth with specious lies, which other men pretend to believe, but do not. That one rule, that one governing principle, is SELF-INTEREST. For the advancement of his own fortunes, the man who calls himself honest will trample on the dearest ties, will sacrifice the firmest friendships. The game which Reginald Eversleigh and I have played against you is a desperate one; but Sir Oswald rendered his nephew desperate when he reduced him, in one short hour, from wealth to poverty — when he robbed him of expectations that had been his from infancy. A desperate man will do desperate deeds; and it has been your fate, Lady Eversleigh, to cross the path of such a man.”
He waited, with his eyes fixed on the face of Sir Oswald’s wife. But during the whole of his speech she had never once looked at him. She had never withdrawn her eyes from the eastern horizon. Passionless contempt was expressed by that curving lip, that calm repose of eye and brow. It seemed as if this woman’s disdain for the plotting villain into whose power she had fallen absorbed every other feeling.
Victor Carrington waited in vain for some reply from those scornful lips; but none came. He took out his cigar-case, lighted a cigar, and sat in a meditative attitude, smoking, and looking down moodily at the black chasm below the base of the tower. For the first time in his life this man, who was utterly without honour or principle — this man, who held self-interest as the one rule of conduct — this unscrupulous trickster and villain, felt the bitterness of a woman’s scorn. He would have been unmoved by the loudest evidence of his victim’s despair; but her silent contempt stung him to the quick. The hours dragged themselves out with a hideous slowness for the despairing creature who sat watching for the dawn; but at last that long night came to an end, the chill morning light glimmered faint and gray in the east. It was not the first time that Sir Oswald’s wife had watched in anguish for the coming of that light. In that lonely tower, with her heart tortured by a sense of unutterable agony, there came back to her the memory of another vigil which she had kept more than two years before.
She heard the dull, plashing sound of a river, the shivering of rushes, then the noise of a struggle, oaths, a heavy crashing fall, a groan, and then no more!
Blessed with her husband’s love, she had for a while closed her eyes upon that horrible picture of the past; but now, in the hour of despair, it came back to her, hideously distinct, awfully palpable.
“How could I hope for happiness?” she thought; “I, the daughter of an assassin! The sins of one generation are visited on another. A curse is upon me, and I can never hope for happiness.”
The sun rose, and shone broad and full over the barren moorland; but it was several hours after sunrise before the man who took care of the ruins came to release the wretched prisoner.
He picked up a scanty living by showing the tower to visitors, and he knew that no visitors were likely to come before nine o’clock in the morning. It was nearly nine when Honoria saw him approaching in the distance.
It was after nine when he drew up the bridge, and came across it to the ruined fortress.
“You are free from this moment, Lady Eversleigh,” said the surgeon, whose face looked horribly pale and worn in the broad sunlight. That night of watching had not been without its agony for him.
Honoria did not condescend to notice his words. She took up the plumed hat, which had been lying among the long grass at her feet. The delicate feathers were wet and spoiled by the night dew, and she took them from the fragile hat and flung them away. Her thin, white dress was heavy with the damp, and clung round her like a shroud. But she had not felt the chilling night winds.
Lady Eversleigh groped her way down the winding staircase, which was dark even in the daytime — except here and there, where a gap in the wall let in a patch of light upon the gloomy stones.
Under the archway she met the countryman, who uttered a cry on beholding the white, phantom-like figure.
“Oh, Loard!” he cried, when he had recovered from his terror; “I ask pardon, my lady, but danged if I didn’t teak thee for a ghaist.”
“You did not know, when you went away last night, that there was any one in the tower?”
“No, indeed, my lady. I’d been away for a few minutes look’n’ arter a bit of peg I’ve got in a shed down yander; and when I keame back to let down th’ drawbridge, I didn’t sing out to ax if there wur any one in th’ old too-wer, for t’aint often as there be any one at that time of night.”
“Tell me the way to the nearest village,” cried Honoria. “I want to get some conveyance to take me to Raynham.”
“Then you had better go to Edgington, ma’am. That’s four miles from here — on t’ Raynham ro-ad.”
The man pointed out the way to the village of which he spoke; and Lady Eversleigh set forth across the wide expanse of moorland alone.
She had considerable difficulty in finding her way, for there were no landmarks on that broad stretch of level turf. She wandered out of the track more than once, and it was one o’clock before she reached the village of Edgington.
Here, after considerable delay, she procured a carriage to take her on to Raynham; but there was little chance that she could reach the castle until between three and four o’clock in the afternoon.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05