“KEEP the American!” Miss Searle, in compliance with the injunction conveyed in her brother’s telegram (with something certainly of telegraphic curtness), lost no time in expressing the pleasure it would give her that our friend should remain. “Really you must,” she said; and forthwith repaired to the house-keeper to give orders for the preparation of a room.
“But how in the world did he know of my being here?” my companion put to me.
I answered that he had probably heard from his solicitor of the other’s visit. “Mr. Simmons and that gentleman must have had another interview since your arrival in England. Simmons, for reasons of his own, has made known to him your journey to this neighbourhood, and Mr. Searle, learning this, has immediately taken for granted that you’ve formally presented yourself to his sister. He’s hospitably inclined and wishes her to do the proper thing by you. There may even,” I went on, “be more in it than that. I’ve my little theory that he’s the very phoenix of usurpers, that he has been very much struck with what the experts have had to say for you, and that he wishes to have the originality of making over to you your share — so limited after all — of the estate.”
“I give it up!” my friend mused. “Come what come will!”
“You, of course,” said Miss Searle, reappearing and turning to me, “are included in my brother’s invitation. I’ve told them to see about a room for you. Your luggage shall immediately be sent for.”
It was arranged that I in person should be driven over to our little inn and that I should return with our effects in time to meet Mr. Searle at dinner. On my arrival several hours later I was immediately conducted to my room. The servant pointed out to me that it communicated by a door and a private passage with that of my fellow visitor. I made my way along this passage — a low narrow corridor with a broad latticed casement through which there streamed upon a series of grotesquely sculptured oaken closets and cupboards the vivid animating glow of the western sun — knocked at his door and, getting no answer, opened it. In an armchair by the open window sat my friend asleep, his arms and legs relaxed and head dropped on his breast. It was a great relief to see him rest thus from his rhapsodies, and I watched him for some moments before waking him. There was a faint glow of colour in his cheek and a light expressive parting of his lips, something nearer to ease and peace than I had yet seen in him. It was almost happiness, it was almost health. I laid my hand on his arm and gently shook it. He opened his eyes, gazed at me a moment, vaguely recognised me, then closed them again. “Let me dream, let me dream!”
“What are you dreaming about?”
A moment passed before his answer came. “About a tall woman in a quaint black dress, with yellow hair and a sweet, sweet smile, and a soft low delicious voice! I’m in love with her.”
“It’s better to see her than to dream about her,” I said. “Get up and dress; then we’ll go down to dinner and meet her.”
“Dinner — dinner —?” And he gradually opened his eyes again. “Yes, upon my word I shall dine!”
“Oh you’re all right!” I declared for the twentieth time as he rose to his feet. “You’ll live to bury Mr. Simmons.” He told me he had spent the hours of my absence with Miss Searle — they had strolled together half over the place. “You must be very intimate,” I smiled.
“She’s intimate with ME. Goodness knows what rigmarole I’ve treated her to!” They had parted an hour ago; since when, he believed, her brother had arrived.
The slow-fading twilight was still in the great drawing-room when we came down. The housekeeper had told us this apartment was rarely used, there being others, smaller and more convenient, for the same needs. It seemed now, however, to be occupied in my comrade’s honour. At the furthest end, rising to the roof like a royal tomb in a cathedral, was a great chimney-piece of chiselled white marble, yellowed by time, in which a light fire was crackling. Before the fire stood a small short man, with his hands behind him; near him was Miss Searle, so transformed by her dress that at first I scarcely knew her. There was in our entrance and reception something remarkably chilling and solemn. We moved in silence up the long room; Mr. Searle advanced slowly, a dozen steps, to meet us; his sister stood motionless. I was conscious of her masking her visage with a large white tinselled fan, and that her eyes, grave and enlarged, watched us intently over the top of it. The master of Lackley grasped in silence the proffered hand of his kinsman and eyed him from head to foot, suppressing, I noted, a start of surprise at his resemblance to Sir Joshua’s portrait. “This is a happy day.” And then turning to me with an odd little sharp stare: “My cousin’s friend is my friend.” Miss Searle lowered her fan.
The first thing that struck me in Mr. Searle’s appearance was his very limited stature, which was less by half a head than that of his sister. The second was the preternatural redness of his hair and beard. They intermingled over his ears and surrounded his head like a huge lurid nimbus. His face was pale and attenuated, the face of a scholar, a dilettante, a comparer of points and texts, a man who lives in a library bending over books and prints and medals. At a distance it might have passed for smooth and rather blankly composed; but on a nearer view it revealed a number of wrinkles, sharply etched and scratched, of a singularly aged and refined effect. It was the complexion of a man of sixty. His nose was arched and delicate, identical almost with the nose of my friend. His eyes, large and deep-set, had a kind of auburn glow, the suggestion of a keen metal red-hot — or, more plainly, were full of temper and spirit. Imagine this physiognomy — grave and solemn, grotesquely solemn, in spite of the bushy brightness which made a sort of frame for it — set in motion by a queer, quick, defiant, perfunctory, preoccupied smile, and you will have an imperfect notion of the remarkable presence of our host; something better worth seeing and knowing, I perceived as I quite breathlessly took him in, than anything we had yet encountered. How thoroughly I had entered into sympathy with my poor picked-up friend, and how effectually I had associated my sensibilities with his own, I had not suspected till, within the short five minutes before the signal for dinner, I became aware, without his giving me the least hint, of his placing himself on the defensive. To neither of us was Mr. Searle sympathetic. I might have guessed from her attitude that his sister entered into our thoughts. A marked change had been wrought in her since the morning; during the hour, indeed — as I read in the light of the wondering glance he cast at her — that had elapsed since her parting with her cousin. She had not yet recovered from some great agitation. Her face was pale and she had clearly been crying. These notes of trouble gave her a new and quite perverse dignity, which was further enhanced by something complimentary and commemorative in her dress.
Whether it was taste or whether it was accident I know not; but the amiable creature, as she stood there half in the cool twilight, half in the arrested glow of the fire as it spent itself in the vastness of its marble cave, was a figure for a painter. She was habited in some faded splendour of sea-green crape and silk, a piece of millinery which, though it must have witnessed a number of dull dinners, preserved still a festive air. Over her white shoulders she wore an ancient web of the most precious and venerable lace and about her rounded throat a single series of large pearls. I went in with her to dinner, and Mr. Searle, following with my friend, took his arm, as the latter afterwards told me, and pretended jocosely to conduct him. As dinner proceeded the feeling grew within me that a drama had begun to be played in which the three persons before me were actors — each of a really arduous part. The character allotted to my friend, however, was certainly the least easy to represent with effect, though I overflowed with the desire that he should acquit himself to his honour. I seemed to see him urge his faded faculties to take their cue and perform. The poor fellow tried to do himself credit more seriously than ever in his old best days. With Miss Searle, credulous passive and pitying, he had finally flung aside all vanity and propriety and shown the bottom of his fantastic heart. But with our host there might be no talking of nonsense nor taking of liberties; there and then, if ever, sat a consummate conservative, breathing the fumes of hereditary privilege and security. For an hour, accordingly, I saw my poor protege attempt, all in pain, to meet a new decorum. He set himself the task of appearing very American, in order that his appreciation of everything Mr. Searle represented might seem purely disinterested. What his kinsman had expected him to be I know not; but I made Mr. Searle out as annoyed, in spite of his exaggerated urbanity, at finding him so harmless. Our host was not the man to show his hand, but I think his best card had been a certain implicit confidence that so provincial a parasite would hardly have good manners.
He led the conversation to the country we had left; rather as if a leash had been attached to the collar of some lumpish and half-domesticated animal the tendency of whose movements had to be recognised. He spoke of it indeed as of some fabled planet, alien to the British orbit, lately proclaimed to have the admixture of atmospheric gases required to support animal life, but not, save under cover of a liberal afterthought, to be admitted into one’s regular conception of things. I, for my part, felt nothing but regret that the spheric smoothness of his universe should be disfigured by the extrusion even of such inconsiderable particles as ourselves.
“I knew in a general way of our having somehow ramified over there,” Mr. Searle mentioned; “but had scarcely followed it more than you pretend to pick up the fruit your long-armed pear tree may drop, on the other side of your wall, in your neighbour’s garden. There was a man I knew at Cambridge, a very odd fellow, a decent fellow too; he and I were rather cronies; I think he afterwards went to the Middle States. They’ll be, I suppose, about the Mississippi? At all events, there was that great-uncle of mine whom Sir Joshua painted. He went to America, but he never got there. He was lost at sea. You look enough like him to make one fancy he DID get there and that you’ve kept him alive by one of those beastly processes — I think you have ’em over there: what do you call it, ‘putting up’ things? If you’re he you’ve not done a wise thing to show yourself here. He left a bad name behind him. There’s a ghost who comes sobbing about the house every now and then, the ghost of one to whom he did a wrong.”
“Oh mercy ON us!” cried Miss Searle in simple horror.
“Of course YOU know nothing of such things,” he rather dryly allowed. “You’re too sound a sleeper to hear the sobbing of ghosts.”
“I’m sure I should like immensely to hear the sobbing of a ghost,” said my friend, the light of his previous eagerness playing up into his eyes. “Why does it sob? I feel as if that were what we’ve come above all to learn.”
Mr. Searle eyed his audience a moment gaugingly; he held the balance as to measure his resources. He wished to do justice to his theme. With the long finger-nails of his left hand nervously playing against the tinkling crystal of his wineglass and his conscious eyes betraying that, small and strange as he sat there, he knew himself, to his pleasure and advantage, remarkably impressive, he dropped into our untutored minds the sombre legend of his house. “Mr. Clement Searle, from all I gather, was a young man of great talents but a weak disposition. His mother was left a widow early in life, with two sons, of whom he was the elder and the more promising. She educated him with the greatest affection and care. Of course when he came to manhood she wished him to marry well. His means were quite sufficient to enable him to overlook the want of money in his wife; and Mrs. Searle selected a young lady who possessed, as she conceived, every good gift save a fortune — a fine proud handsome girl, the daughter of an old friend, an old lover I suspect, of her own. Clement, however, as it appeared, had either chosen otherwise or was as yet unprepared to choose. The young lady opened upon him in vain the battery of her attractions; in vain his mother urged her cause. Clement remained cold, insensible, inflexible. Mrs. Searle had a character which appears to have gone out of fashion in my family nowadays; she was a great manager, a maitresse-femme. A proud passionate imperious woman, she had had immense cares and ever so many law-suits; they had sharpened her temper and her will. She suspected that her son’s affections had another object, and this object she began to hate. Irritated by his stubborn defiance of her wishes she persisted in her purpose. The more she watched him the more she was convinced he loved in secret. If he loved in secret of course he loved beneath him. He went about the place all sombre and sullen and brooding. At last, with the rashness of an angry woman, she threatened to bring the young lady of her choice — who, by the way, seems to have been no shrinking blossom — to stay in the house. A stormy scene was the result. He threatened that if she did so he would leave the country and sail for America. She probably disbelieved him; she knew him to be weak, but she overrated his weakness. At all events the rejected one arrived and Clement Searle departed. On a dark December day he took ship at Southampton. The two women, desperate with rage and sorrow, sat alone in this big house, mingling their tears and imprecations. A fortnight later, on Christmas Eve, in the midst of a great snowstorm long famous in the country, something happened that quickened their bitterness. A young woman, battered and chilled by the storm, gained entrance to the house and, making her way into the presence of the mistress and her guest, poured out her tale. She was a poor curate’s daughter out of some little hole in Gloucestershire. Clement Searle had loved her — loved her all too well! She had been turned out in wrath from her father’s house; his mother at least might pity her — if not for herself then for the child she was soon to bring forth. Hut the poor girl had been a second time too trustful. The women, in scorn, in horror, with blows possibly, drove her forth again into the storm. In the storm she wandered and in the deep snow she died. Her lover, as you know, perished in that hard winter weather at sea; the news came to his mother late, but soon enough. We’re haunted by the curate’s daughter!”
Mr. Searle retailed this anecdote with infinite taste and point, the happiest art; when he ceased there was a pause of some moments. “Ah well we may be!” Miss Searle then mournfully murmured.
Searle blazed up into enthusiasm. “Of course, you know”— with which he began to blush violently —“I should be sorry to claim any identity with the poor devil my faithless namesake. But I should be immensely gratified if the young lady’s spirit, deceived by my resemblance, were to mistake me for her cruel lover. She’s welcome to the comfort of it. What one can do in the case I shall be glad to do. But can a ghost haunt a ghost? I AM a ghost!”
Mr. Searle stared a moment and then had a subtle sneer. “I could almost believe you are!”
“Oh brother — and cousin!” cried Miss Searle with the gentlest yet most appealing dignity. “How can you talk so horribly?” The horrible talk, however, evidently possessed a potent magic for my friend; and his imagination, checked a while by the influence of his kinsman, began again to lead him a dance. From this moment he ceased to steer his frail bark, to care what he said or how he said it, so long as he expressed his passionate appreciation of the scene around him. As he kept up this strain I ceased even secretly to wish he wouldn’t. I have wondered since that I shouldn’t have been annoyed by the way he reverted constantly to himself. But a great frankness, for the time, makes its own law and a great passion its own channel. There was moreover an irresponsible indescribable effect of beauty in everything his lips uttered. Free alike from adulation and from envy, the essence of his discourse was a divine apprehension, a romantic vision free as the flight of Ariel, of the poetry of his companions’ situation and their contrasted general irresponsiveness.
“How does the look of age come?” he suddenly broke out at dessert. “Does it come of itself, unobserved, unrecorded, unmeasured? Or do you woo it and set baits and traps for it, and watch it like the dawning brownness of a meerschaum pipe, and make it fast, when it appears, just where it peeps out, and light a votive taper beneath it and give thanks to it daily? Or do you forbid it and fight it and resist it, and yet feel it settling and deepening about you as irresistible as fate?”
“What the deuce is the man talking about?” said the smile of our host.
“I found a little grey hair this morning,” Miss Searle incoherently prosed.
“Well then I hope you paid it every respect!” cried her visitor.
“I looked at it for a long time in my hand-glass,” she answered with more presence of mind.
“Miss Searle can for many years to come afford to be amused at grey hairs,” I interposed in the hope of some greater ease. It had its effect. “Ten years from last Thursday I shall be forty-four,” she almost comfortably smiled.
“Well, that’s just what I am,” said Searle. “If I had only come here ten years ago! I should have had more time to enjoy the feast, but I should have had less appetite. I needed first to get famished.”
“Oh why did you wait for that?” his entertainer asked. “To think of these ten years that we might have been enjoying you!” At the vision of which waste and loss Mr. Searle had a fine shrill laugh.
“Well,” my friend explained, “I always had a notion — a stupid vulgar notion if there ever was one — that to come abroad properly one had to have a pot of money. My pot was too nearly empty. At last I came with my empty pot!”
Mr. Searle had a wait for delicacy, but he proceeded. “You’re reduced, you’re — a — straitened?”
Our companion’s very breath blew away the veil. “Reduced to nothing. Straitened to the clothes on my back!”
“You don’t say so!” said Mr. Searle with a large vague gasp. “Well — well — well!” he added in a voice which might have meant everything or nothing; and then, in his whimsical way, went on to finish a glass of wine. His searching eye, as he drank, met mine, and for a moment we each rather deeply sounded the other, to the effect no doubt of a slight embarrassment. “And you,” he said by way of carrying this off —“how about YOUR wardrobe?”
“Oh his!” cried my friend; “his wardrobe’s immense. He could dress up a regiment!” He had drunk more champagne — I admit that the champagne was good — than was from any point of view to have been desired. He was rapidly drifting beyond any tacit dissuasion of mine. He was feverish and rash, and all attempt to direct would now simply irritate him. As we rose from the table he caught my troubled look. Passing his arm for a moment into mine, “This is the great night!” he strangely and softly said; “the night and the crisis that will settle me.”
Mr. Searle had caused the whole lower portion of the house to be thrown open and a multitude of lights to be placed in convenient and effective positions. Such a marshalled wealth of ancient candlesticks and flambeaux I had never beheld. Niched against the dusky wainscots, casting great luminous circles upon the pendent stiffness of sombre tapestries, enhancing and completing with admirable effect the variety and mystery of the great ancient house, they seemed to people the wide rooms, as our little group passed slowly from one to another, with a dim expectant presence. We had thus, in spite of everything, a wonderful hour of it. Mr. Searle at once assumed the part of cicerone, and — I had not hitherto done him justice — Mr. Searle became almost agreeable. While I lingered behind with his sister he walked in advance with his kinsman. It was as if he had said: “Well, if you want the old place you shall have it — so far as the impression goes!” He spared us no thrill — I had almost said no pang — of that experience. Carrying a tall silver candlestick in his left hand, he raised it and lowered it and cast the light hither and thither, upon pictures and hangings and carvings and cornices. He knew his house to perfection. He touched upon a hundred traditions and memories, he threw off a cloud of rich reference to its earlier occupants. He threw off again, in his easy elegant way, a dozen — happily lighter — anecdotes. His relative attended with a brooding deference. Miss Searle and I meanwhile were not wholly silent.
“I suppose that by this time you and your cousin are almost old friends,” I remarked.
She trifled a moment with her fan and then raised her kind small eyes. “Old friends — yet at the same time strangely new! My cousin, my cousin”— and her voice lingered on the word —“it seems so strange to call him my cousin after thinking these many years that I’ve no one in the world but my brother. But he’s really so very odd!”
“It’s not so much he as — well, as his situation, that deserves that name,” I tried to reason.
“I’m so sorry for his situation. I wish I could help it in some way. He interests me so much.” She gave a sweet-sounding sigh. “I wish I could have known him sooner — and better. He tells me he’s but the shadow of what he used to be.”
I wondered if he had been consciously practising on the sensibilities of this gentle creature. If he had I believed he had gained his point. But his position had in fact become to my sense so precarious that I hardly ventured to be glad. “His better self just now seems again to be taking shape,” I said. “It will have been a good deed on your part if you help to restore him to all he ought to be.”
She met my idea blankly. “Dear me, what can I do?”
“Be a friend to him. Let him like you, let him love you. I dare say you see in him now much to pity and to wonder at. But let him simply enjoy a while the grateful sense of your nearness and dearness. He’ll be a better and stronger man for it, and then you can love him, you can esteem him, without restriction.”
She fairly frowned for helplessness. “It’s a hard part for poor stupid me to play!”
Her almost infantine innocence left me no choice but to be absolutely frank. “Did you ever play any part at all?”
She blushed as if I had been reproaching her with her insignificance. “Never! I think I’ve hardly lived.”
“You’ve begun to live now perhaps. You’ve begun to care for something else than your old-fashioned habits. Pardon me if I seem rather meddlesome; you know we Americans are very rough and ready. It’s a great moment. I wish you joy!”
“I could almost believe you’re laughing at me. I feel more trouble than joy.”
“Why do you feel trouble?”
She paused with her eyes fixed on our companions. “My cousin’s arrival’s a great disturbance,” she said at last.
“You mean you did wrong in coming to meet him? In that case the fault’s mine. He had no intention of giving you the opportunity.”
“I certainly took too much on myself. But I can’t find it in my heart to regret it. I never shall regret it! I did the only thing I COULD, heaven forgive me!”
“Heaven bless you, Miss Searle! Is any harm to come of it? I did the evil; let me bear the brunt!”
She shook her head gravely. “You don’t know my brother!”
“The sooner I master the subject the better then,” I said. I couldn’t help relieving myself — at least by the tone of my voice — of the antipathy with which, decidedly, this gentleman had inspired me. “Not perhaps that we should get on so well together!” After which, as she turned away, “Are you VERY much afraid of him?” I added.
She gave me a shuddering sidelong glance. “He’s looking at me!”
He was placed with his back to us, holding a large Venetian hand-mirror, framed in chiselled silver, which he had taken from a shelf of antiquities, just at such an angle that he caught the reflexion of his sister’s person. It was evident that I too was under his attention, and was resolved I wouldn’t be suspected for nothing. “Miss Searle,” I said with urgency, “promise me something.”
She turned upon me with a start and a look that seemed to beg me to spare her. “Oh don’t ask me — please don’t!” It was as if she were standing on the edge of a place where the ground had suddenly fallen away, and had been called upon to make a leap. I felt retreat was impossible, however, and that it was the greater kindness to assist her to jump.
“Promise me,” I repeated.
Still with her eyes she protested. “Oh what a dreadful day!” she cried at last.
“Promise me to let him speak to you alone if he should ask you — any wish you may suspect on your brother’s part notwithstanding.” She coloured deeply. “You mean he has something so particular to say?”
“Something so particular!”
“Well, poor cousin! But promise me.”
“I promise,” she said, and moved away across the long room and out of the door.
“You’re in time to hear the most delightful story,” Searle began to me as I rejoined him and his host. They were standing before an old sombre portrait of a lady in the dress of Queen Anne’s time, whose ill-painted flesh-tints showed livid, in the candle-light, against her dark drapery and background. “This is Mrs. Margaret Searle — a sort of Beatrix Esmond — qui se passait ses fantaisies. She married a paltry Frenchman, a penniless fiddler, in the teeth of her whole family. Pretty Mrs. Margaret, you must have been a woman of courage! Upon my word, she looks like Miss Searle! But pray go on. What came of it all?”
Our companion watched him with an air of distaste for his boisterous homage and of pity for his crude imagination. But he took up the tale with an effective dryness: “I found a year ago, in a box of very old papers, a letter from the lady in question to a certain Cynthia Searle, her elder sister. It was dated from Paris and dreadfully ill-spelled. It contained a most passionate appeal for pecuniary assistance. She had just had a baby, she was starving and dreadfully neglected by her husband — she cursed the day she had left England. It was a most dismal production. I never heard she found means to return.”
“So much for marrying a Frenchman!” I said sententiously.
Our host had one of his waits. “This is the only lady of the family who ever was taken in by an adventurer.”
“Does Miss Searle know her history?” asked my friend with a stare at the rounded whiteness of the heroine’s cheek.
“Miss Searle knows nothing!” said our host with expression.
“She shall know at least the tale of Mrs. Margaret,” their guest returned; and he walked rapidly away in search of her.
Mr. Searle and I pursued our march through the lighted rooms. “You’ve found a cousin with a vengeance,” I doubtless awkwardly enough laughed.
“Ah a vengeance?” my entertainer stiffly repeated.
“I mean that he takes as keen an interest in your annals and possessions as yourself.”
“Oh exactly so! He tells me he’s a bad invalid,” he added in a moment. “I should never have supposed it.”
“Within the past few hours he’s a changed man. Your beautiful house, your extreme kindness, have refreshed him immensely.” Mr. Searle uttered the vague ejaculation with which self-conscious Britons so often betray the concussion of any especial courtesy of speech. But he followed this by a sudden odd glare and the sharp declaration: “I’m an honest man!” I was quite prepared to assent; but he went on with a fury of frankness, as if it were the first time in his life he had opened himself to any one, as if the process were highly disagreeable and he were hurrying through it as a task. “An honest man, mind you! I know nothing about Mr. Clement Searle! I never expected to see him. He has been to me a — a —!” And here he paused to select a word which should vividly enough express what, for good or for ill, his kinsman represented. “He has been to me an Amazement! I’ve no doubt he’s a most amiable man. You’ll not deny, however, that he’s a very extraordinary sort of person. I’m sorry he’s ill. I’m sorry he’s poor. He’s my fiftieth cousin. Well and good. I’m an honest man. He shall not have it to say that he wasn’t received at my house.”
“He too, thank heaven, is an honest man!” I smiled.
“Why the devil then,” cried Mr. Searle, turning almost fiercely on me, “has he put forward this underhand claim to my property?”
The question, quite ringing out, flashed backward a gleam of light upon the demeanour of our host and the suppressed agitation of his sister. In an instant the jealous gentleman revealed itself. For a moment I was so surprised and scandalised at the directness of his attack that I lacked words to reply. As soon as he had spoken indeed Mr. Searle appeared to feel he had been wanting in form. “Pardon me,” he began afresh, “if I speak of this matter with heat. But I’ve been more disgusted than I can say to hear, as I heard this morning from my solicitor, of the extraordinary proceedings of Mr. Clement Searle. Gracious goodness, sir, for what does the man take me? He pretends to the Lord knows what fantastic admiration for my place. Let him then show his respect for it by not taking too many liberties! Let him, with his high-flown parade of loyalty, imagine a tithe of what I feel! I love my estate; it’s my passion, my conscience, my life! Am I to divide it up at this time of day with a beggarly foreigner — a man without means, without appearance, without proof, a pretender, an adventurer, a chattering mountebank? I thought America boasted having lands for all men! Upon my soul, sir, I’ve never been so shocked in my life.”
I paused for some moments before speaking, to allow his passion fully to expend itself and to flicker up again if it chose; for so far as I was concerned in the whole awkward matter I but wanted to deal with him discreetly. “Your apprehensions, sir,” I said at last, “your not unnatural surprise, perhaps, at the candour of our interest, have acted too much on your nerves. You’re attacking a man of straw, a creature of unworthy illusion; though I’m sadly afraid you’ve wounded a man of spirit and conscience. Either my friend has no valid claim on your estate, in which case your agitation is superfluous; or he HAS a valid claim —”
Mr. Searle seized my arm and glared at me; his pale face paler still with the horror of my suggestion, his great eyes of alarm glowing and his strange red hair erect and quivering. “A valid claim!” he shouted. “Let him try it — let him bring it into court!”
We had emerged into the great hall and stood facing the main doorway. The door was open into the portico, through the stone archway of which I saw the garden glitter in the blue light of a full moon. As the master of the house uttered the words I have just repeated my companion came slowly up into the porch from without, bareheaded, bright in the outer moonlight, dark in the shadow of the archway, and bright again in the lamplight at the entrance of the hall. As he crossed the threshold the butler made an appearance at the head of the staircase on our left, faltering visibly a moment at sight of Mr. Searle; after which, noting my friend, he gravely descended. He bore in his hand a small silver tray. On the tray, gleaming in the light of the suspended lamp, lay a folded note. Clement Searle came forward, staring a little and startled, I think, by some quick nervous prevision of a catastrophe. The butler applied the match to the train. He advanced to my fellow visitor, all solemnly, with the offer of his missive. Mr. Searle made a movement as if to spring forward, but controlled himself. “Tottenham!” he called in a strident voice.
“Yes, sir!” said Tottenham, halting.
“Stand where you are. For whom is that note?”
“For Mr. Clement Searle,” said the butler, staring straight before him and dissociating himself from everything.
“Who gave it to you?”
“Mrs. Horridge, sir.” This personage, I afterwards learned, was our friend the housekeeper.
“Who gave it Mrs. Horridge?”
There was on Tottenham’s part just an infinitesimal pause before replying.
“My dear sir,” broke in Searle, his equilibrium, his ancient ease, completely restored by the crisis, “isn’t that rather my business?”
“What happens in my house is my business, and detestable things seem to be happening.” Our host, it was clear, now so furiously detested them that I was afraid he would snatch the bone of contention without more ceremony. “Bring me that thing!” he cried; on which Tottenham stiffly moved to obey.
“Really this is too much!” broke out my companion, affronted and helpless.
So indeed it struck me, and before Mr. Searle had time to take the note I possessed myself of it. “If you’ve no consideration for your sister let a stranger at least act for her.” And I tore the disputed object into a dozen pieces.
“In the name of decency, what does this horrid business mean?” my companion quavered.
Mr. Searle was about to open fire on him, but at that moment our hostess appeared on the staircase, summoned evidently by our high-pitched contentious voices. She had exchanged her dinner-dress for a dark wrapper, removed her ornaments and begun to disarrange her hair, a thick tress of which escaped from the comb. She hurried down with a pale questioning face. Feeling distinctly that, for ourselves, immediate departure was in the air, and divining Mr. Tottenham to be a person of a few deep-seated instincts and of much latent energy, I seized the opportunity to request him, sotto voce, to send a carriage to the door without delay. “And put up our things,” I added.
Our host rushed at his sister and grabbed the white wrist that escaped from the loose sleeve of her dress. “What was in that note?” he quite hissed at her.
Miss Searle looked first at its scattered fragments and then at her cousin. “Did you read it?”
“No, but I thank you for it!” said Searle.
Her eyes, for an instant, communicated with his own as I think they had never, never communicated with any other source of meaning; then she transferred them to her brother’s face, where the sense went out of them, only to leave a dull sad patience. But there was something even in this flat humility that seemed to him to mock him, so that he flushed crimson with rage and spite and flung her away. “You always were an idiot! Go to bed.”
In poor Searle’s face as well the gathered serenity had been by this time all blighted and distorted and the reflected brightness of his happy day turned to blank confusion. “Have I been dealing these three hours with a madman?” he woefully cried.
“A madman, yes, if you will! A man mad with the love of his home and the sense of its stability. I’ve held my tongue till now, but you’ve been too much for me. Who the devil are you, and what and why and whence?” the terrible little man continued. “From what paradise of fools do you come that you fancy I shall make over to you, for the asking, a part of my property and my life? I’m forsooth, you ridiculous person, to go shares with you? Prove your preposterous claim! There isn’t THAT in it!” And he kicked one of the bits of paper on the floor.
Searle received this broadside gaping. Then turning away he went and seated himself on a bench against the wall and rubbed his forehead amazedly. I looked at my watch and listened for the wheels of our carriage.
But his kinsman was too launched to pull himself up. “Wasn’t it enough that you should have plotted against my rights? Need you have come into my very house to intrigue with my sister?”
My friend put his two hands to his face. “Oh, oh, oh!” he groaned while Miss Searle crossed rapidly and dropped on her knees at his side.
“Go to bed, you fool!” shrieked her brother.
“Dear cousin,” she said, “it’s cruel you’re to have so to think of us!”
“Oh I shall think of YOU as you’d like!” He laid a hand on her head.
“I believe you’ve done nothing wrong,” she brought bravely out.
“I’ve done what I could,” Mr. Searle went on —“but it’s arrant folly to pretend to friendship when this abomination lies between us. You were welcome to my meat and my wine, but I wonder you could swallow them. The sight spoiled MY appetite!” cried the master of Lackley with a laugh. “Proceed with your trumpery case! My people in London are instructed and prepared.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if your case had improved a good deal since you gave it up,” I was moved to observe to Searle.
“Oho! you don’t feign ignorance then?” and our insane entertainer shook his shining head at me. “It’s very kind of you to give it up! Perhaps you’ll also give up my sister!”
Searle sat staring in distress at his adversary. “Ah miserable man — I thought we had become such beautiful friends.”
“Boh, you hypocrite!” screamed our host.
Searle seemed not to hear him. “Am I seriously expected,” he slowly and painfully pursued, “to defend myself against the accusation of any real indelicacy — to prove I’ve done nothing underhand or impudent? Think what you please!” And he rose, with an effort, to his feet. “I know what YOU think!” he added to Miss Searle.
The wheels of the carriage resounded on the gravel, and at the same moment a footman descended with our two portmanteaux. Mr. Tottenham followed him with our hats and coats.
“Good God,” our host broke out again, “you’re not going away?”— an ejaculation that, after all that had happened, had the grandest comicality. “Bless my soul,” he then remarked as artlessly, “of course you’re going!”
“It’s perhaps well,” said Miss Searle with a great effort, inexpressibly touching in one for whom great efforts were visibly new and strange, “that I should tell you what my poor little note contained.”
“That matter of your note, madam,” her brother interrupted, “you and I will settle together!”
“Let me imagine all sorts of kind things!” Searle beautifully pleaded.
“Ah too much has been imagined!” she answered simply. “It was only a word of warning. It was to tell you to go. I knew something painful was coming.”
He took his hat. “The pains and the pleasures of this day,” he said to his kinsman, “I shall equally never forget. Knowing you,” and he offered his hand to Miss Searle, “has been the pleasure of pleasures. I hoped something more might have come of it.”
“A monstrous deal too much has come of it!” Mr. Searle irrepressibly declared.
His departing guest looked at him mildly, almost benignantly, from head to foot, and then with closed eyes and some collapse of strength, “I’m afraid so, I can’t stand more,” he went on. I gave him my arm and we crossed the threshold. As we passed out I heard Miss Searle break into loud weeping.
“We shall hear from each other yet, I take it!” her brother pursued, harassing our retreat.
My friend stopped, turning round on him fiercely. “You very impossible man!” he cried in his face.
“Do you mean to say you’ll not prosecute?” Mr. Searle kept it up. “I shall force you to prosecute! I shall drag you into court, and you shall be beaten — beaten — beaten!” Which grim reiteration followed us on our course.
We drove of course to the little wayside inn from which we had departed in the morning so unencumbered, in all broad England, either with enemies or friends. My companion, as the carriage rolled along, seemed overwhelmed and exhausted. “What a beautiful horrible dream!” he confusedly wailed. “What a strange awakening! What a long long day! What a hideous scene! Poor me! Poor woman!” When we had resumed possession of our two little neighbouring rooms I asked him whether Miss Searle’s note had been the result of anything that had passed between them on his going to rejoin her. “I found her on the terrace,” he said, “walking restlessly up and down in the moonlight. I was greatly excited — I hardly know what I said. I asked her, I think, if she knew the story of Margaret Searle. She seemed frightened and troubled, and she used just the words her brother had used —‘I know nothing.’ For the moment, somehow, I felt as a man drunk. I stood before her and told her, with great emphasis, how poor Margaret had married a beggarly foreigner — all in obedience to her heart and in defiance to her family. As I talked the sheeted moonlight seemed to close about us, so that we stood there in a dream, in a world quite detached. She grew younger, prettier, more attractive — I found myself talking all kinds of nonsense. Before I knew it I had gone very far. I was taking her hand and calling her ‘Margaret, dear Margaret!’ She had said it was impossible, that she could do nothing, that she was a fool, a child, a slave. Then with a sudden sense — it was odd how it came over me there — of the reality of my connexion with the place, I spoke of my claim against the estate. ‘It exists,’ I declared, ‘but I’ve given it up. Be generous! Pay me for my sacrifice.’ For an instant her face was radiant. ‘If I marry you,’ she asked, ‘will it make everything right?’ Of that I at once assured her — in our marriage the whole difficulty would melt away like a rain-drop in the great sea. ‘Our marriage!’ she repeated in wonder; and the deep ring of her voice seemed to wake us up and show us our folly. ‘I love you, but I shall never see you again,’ she cried; and she hurried away with her face in her hands. I walked up and down the terrace for some moments, and then came in and met you. That’s the only witchcraft I’ve used!”
The poor man was at once so roused and so shaken by the day’s events that I believed he would get little sleep. Conscious on my own part that I shouldn’t close my eyes, I but partly undressed, stirred my fire and sat down to do some writing. I heard the great clock in the little parlour below strike twelve, one, half-past one. Just as the vibration of this last stroke was dying on the air the door of communication with Searle’s room was flung open and my companion stood on the threshold, pale as a corpse, in his nightshirt, shining like a phantom against the darkness behind him. “Look well at me!” he intensely gasped; “touch me, embrace me, revere me! You see a man who has seen a ghost!”
“Gracious goodness, what do you mean?”
“Write it down!” he went on. “There, take your pen. Put it into dreadful words. How do I look? Am I human? Am I pale? Am I red? Am I speaking English? A ghost, sir! Do you understand?”
I confess there came upon me by contact a kind of supernatural shock. I shall always feel by the whole communication of it that I too have seen a ghost. My first movement — I can smile at it now — was to spring to the door, close it quickly and turn the key upon the gaping blackness from which Searle had emerged. I seized his two hands; they were wet with perspiration. I pushed my chair to the fire and forced him to sit down in it; then I got on my knees and held his hands as firmly as possible. They trembled and quivered; his eyes were fixed save that the pupil dilated and contracted with extraordinary force. I asked no questions, but waited there, very curious for what he would say. At last he spoke. “I’m not frightened, but I’m — oh excited! This is life! This is living! My nerves — my heart — my brain! They’re throbbing — don’t you feel it? Do you tingle? Are you hot? Are you cold? Hold me tight — tight — tight! I shall tremble away into waves — into surges — and know all the secrets of things and all the reasons and all the mysteries!” He paused a moment and then went on: “A woman — as clear as that candle: no, far clearer! In a blue dress, with a black mantle on her head and a little black muff. Young and wonderfully pretty, pale and ill; with the sadness of all the women who ever loved and suffered pleading and accusing in her wet-looking eyes. God knows I never did any such thing! But she took me for my elder, for the other Clement. She came to me here as she would have come to me there. She wrung her hands and she spoke to me ‘marry me!’ she moaned; ‘marry me and put an end to my shame!’ I sat up in bed, just as I sit here, looked at her, heard her — heard her voice melt away, watched her figure fade away. Bless us and save us! Here I be!”
I made no attempt either to explain or to criticise this extraordinary passage. It’s enough that I yielded for the hour to the strange force of my friend’s emotion. On the whole I think my own vision was the more interesting of the two. He beheld but the transient irresponsible spectre — I beheld the human subject hot from the spectral presence. Yet I soon recovered my judgement sufficiently to be moved again to try to guard him against the results of excitement and exposure. It was easily agreed that he was not for the night to return to his room, and I made him fairly comfortable in his place by my fire. Wishing above all to preserve him from a chill I removed my bedding and wrapped him in the blankets and counterpane. I had no nerves either for writing or for sleep; so I put out my lights, renewed the fuel and sat down on the opposite side of the hearth. I found it a great and high solemnity just to watch my companion. Silent, swathed and muffled to his chin, he sat rigid and erect with the dignity of his adventure. For the most part his eyes were closed; though from time to time he would open them with a steady expansion and stare, never blinking, into the flame, as if he again beheld without terror the image of the little woman with the muff. His cadaverous emaciated face, his tragic wrinkles intensified by the upward glow from the hearth, his distorted moustache, his extraordinary gravity and a certain fantastical air as the red light flickered over him, all re-enforced his fine likeness to the vision-haunted knight of La Mancha when laid up after some grand exploit. The night passed wholly without speech. Toward its close I slept for half an hour. When I awoke the awakened birds had begun to twitter and Searle, unperturbed, sat staring at me. We exchanged a long look, and I felt with a pang that his glittering eyes had tasted their last of natural sleep. “How is it? Are you comfortable?” I nevertheless asked.
He fixed me for a long time without replying and then spoke with a weak extravagance and with such pauses between his words as might have represented the slow prompting of an inner voice. “You asked me when you first knew me what I was. ‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘nothing of any consequence.’ Nothing I’ve always supposed myself to be. But I’ve wronged myself — I’m a great exception. I’m a haunted man!”
If sleep had passed out of his eyes I felt with even a deeper pang that sanity had abandoned his spirit. From this moment I was prepared for the worst. There were in my friend, however, such confirmed habits of mildness that I found myself not in the least fearing he would prove unmanageable. As morning began fully to dawn upon us I brought our curious vigil to a close. Searle was so enfeebled that I gave him my hands to help him out of his chair, and he retained them for some moments after rising to his feet, unable as he seemed to keep his balance. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been once favoured, but don’t think I shall be favoured again. I shall soon be myself as fit to ‘appear’ as any of them. I shall haunt the master of Lackley! It can only mean one thing — that they’re getting ready for me on the other side of the grave.”
When I touched the question of breakfast he replied that he had his breakfast in his pocket; and he drew from his travelling-bag a phial of morphine. He took a strong dose and went to bed. At noon I found him on foot again, dressed, shaved, much refreshed. “Poor fellow,” he said, “you’ve got more than you bargained for — not only a man with a grievance but a man with a ghost. Well, it won’t be for long!” It had of course promptly become a question whither we should now direct our steps. “As I’ve so little time,” he argued for this, “I should like to see the best, the best alone.” I answered that either for time or eternity I had always supposed Oxford to represent the English maximum, and for Oxford in the course of an hour we accordingly departed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10