The human mind being, in this respect, of the nature of a kaleidoscope, that the slightest hitch, or jolt, or tremor is enough to change the entire picture that occupies it, it is not to be supposed that the illness of her father, alarming as it was, could occupy Alice Arden’s thoughts to the exclusion of every other subject, during every moment of her journey. One picture, a very pretty one, frequently presented itself, and always her heart felt a strange little pain as this pretty phantom appeared. It was the portrait of a young girl, with fair golden hair, a brilliant complexion, and large blue eyes, with something riant, triumphant, and arch to the verge of mischief, in her animated and handsome face.
The careless words of good Lady May, this evening, and the very obvious confusion of Vivian Darnley at mention of the name of Grace Maubray, troubled her. What was more likely than that Uncle David, interested in both, should have seriously projected the union which Lady May had gaily suggested? If she — Alice Arden — liked Vivian Darnley, it was not very much, her pride insisted. In her childhood they had been thrown together. He had seemed to like her; but had he ever spoken? Why was he silent? Was she fool enough to like him? — that cautious, selfish young man, who was thinking, she was quite certain now, of a marriage of prudence or ambition with Grace Maubray? It was a cold, cruel, sordid world!
But, after all, why should he have spoken? or why should he have hoped to be heard with favour? She had been to him, thank Heaven, just as any other pleasant, early friend. There was nothing to regret — nothing fairly to blame. It was just that a person whom she had come to regard as a property was about to go, and belong quite, to another. It was the foolish little jealousy that everyone feels, and that means nothing. So she told herself; but constantly recurred the same pretty image, and with it the same sudden little pain at her heart.
But now came the other care. As time and space shorten, and the moment of decision draws near, the pain of suspense increases. They were within six miles of Twyford. Her heart was in a wild flutter — now throbbing madly, now it seemed standing still. The carriage window was down. She was looking out on the scenery — strange to her — all bright and serene under a brilliant moon. What message awaited her at the inn to which they were travelling at this swift pace? How frightful it might be!
“Oh, Louisa!” she every now and then imploringly cried to her maid, “how do you think it will be? Oh! how will it be? Do you think he’ll be better? Oh! do you think he’ll be better? Tell me again about his other illness, and how he recovered? Don’t you think he will this time? Oh, Louisa, darling! don’t you think so? Tell me —tell me you do!”
Thus, in her panic, the poor girl wildly called for help and comfort, until at last the carriage turned a curve in the road at which stood a shadowy clump of elms, and in another moment the driver pulled up under the sign of the “Royal Oak.”
“Oh, Louisa! Here it is,” cried the young lady, holding her maid’s wrist with a trembling grasp.
The inn-door was shut, but there was light in the hall, and light in an upper room.
“Don’t knock — only ring the bell. He may be asleep, God grant!” said the young lady.
The door was quickly opened, and a waiter ran down to the carriage window, where he saw a pair of large wild eyes, and a very pale face, and heard the question —“An old gentlemen has been ill here, and a telegram was sent; is he — how is he?”
“He’s better, Ma’am,” said the man.
With a low, long “O— Oh!” and clasped hands and upturned eyes, she leaned back in the carriage, and a sudden flood of tears relieved her. Yes; he was a great deal better. The attack was quite over; but he had not spoken. He seemed much exhausted; and having swallowed some claret, which the doctor prescribed, he had sunk into a sound and healthy sleep, in which he still lay. A message by telegraph had been sent to announce the good news, but Alice was some way on her journey before it had reached.
Now the young lady got down, and entered the homely old inn, followed by her maid. She could have dropped on her knees in gratitude to her Maker; but true religion, like true affection, is shy of demonstrating its fervours where sympathy is doubtful.
Gently, hardly breathing, guided by the “chambermaid,” she entered her father’s room, and stood at his bedside. There he lay, yellow, lean, the lines of his face in repose still forbidding, the thin lips and thin nose looking almost transparent, and breathing deeply and regularly, as a child in his slumbers. In that face Alice could not discover what any stranger would have seen. She only saw the face of her father. Selfish and capricious as he was, and violent too — a wicked old man, if one could see him justly — he was yet proud of her, and had many schemes and projects afloat in his jaded old brain, of which her beauty was the talisman, of which she suspected nothing, and with which his head was never more busy than at the very moment when he was surprised by the aura of his coming fit.
The doctor’s conjecture was right. He had crossed the Channel that morning. In his French coupée, he had for companion the very man he had most wished and contrived to travel homeward with. This was Lord Wynderbroke.
Lord Wynderbroke was fifty years old and upwards. He was very much taken with Alice, whom he had met pretty often. He was a man who was thought likely to marry. His estate was in the nattiest order. He had always been prudent, and cultivated a character. He had, moreover, mortgages over Sir Reginald Arden’s estate, the interest of which the baronet was beginning to find it next to impossible to pay. They had been making a little gouty visit to Vichy, and Sir Reginald had taken good care to make the journey homeward with Lord Wynderbroke, who knew that when he pleased he could be an amusing companion, and who also felt that kind of interest in him which everyone experiences in the kindred of the young lady of whom he is enamoured.
The baronet, who tore up or burnt his letters for the most part, had kept this particular one by which his daughter had been traced and summoned to the “Royal Oak.” It was, he thought, clever. It was amusing, and had some London gossip. He had read bits of it to Lord Wynderbroke in the coupée. Lord Wynderbroke was delighted. When they parted, he had asked leave to pay him a visit at Mortlake.
“Only too happy, if you are not afraid of the old house falling in upon us. Everything there, you know, is very much as my grandfather left it. I only use it as a caravanserai, and alight there for a little, on a journey. Everything there is tumbling to pieces. But you won’t mind — no more than I do.”
So the little visit was settled. The passage was rough. Peer and baronet were ill. They did not care to reunite their fortunes after they touched English ground. As the baronet drew near London, for certain reasons he grew timid. He got out with a portmanteau and dressing-case, and an umbrella, at Drowark station, sent his servant on with the rest of the luggage by rail, and himself took a chaise; and, after one change of horses, had reached the “Royal Oak” in the state in which we first saw him.
The doctor had told the people at that inn that he would look in, in the course of the night, some time after one o’clock, being a little uneasy about a possible return of the old man’s malady. There was that in the aristocratic looks and belongings of his patient, and in the very fashionable address to which the message to his daughter was transmitted, which induced in the mind of the learned man a suspicion that a “swell” might have accidentally fallen into his hands.
By this time, thanks to the diligence of Louisa Diaper, every one in the house had been made acquainted with the fact that the sick man was no other than Sir Reginald Arden, Bart., and with many other circumstances of splendour, which would not, perhaps, have so well stood the test of inquiry. The doctor and his crony, the rector — simplest of parsons — who had agreed to accompany him in this nocturnal call, being a curious man, as gentlemen inhabiting quiet villages will be-these two gentlemen now heard all this lore in the hall at a quarter past one, and entered the patient’s chamber (where they found Miss Arden and her maid) accordingly. In whispers, the doctor made to Miss Arden a most satisfactory report. He made his cautious inspection of the patient, and again had nothing but what was cheery to say.
If the rector had not prided himself upon his manners, and had been content with one bow on withdrawing from the lady’s presence, they would not that night have heard the patient’s voice — and perhaps, all things considered, so much the better.
“I trust, Madam, in the morning Sir Reginald may be quite himself again. It is pleasant, Madam, to witness slumber so quiet,” murmured the clergyman kindly, and in perfect good faith. “It is the slumber of a tranquil mind — a spirit at peace with itself.”
Smiling kindly in making the last stiff bow which accompanied these happy words, the good man tilted over a little table behind him, on which stood a decanter of claret, a water caraffe, and two glasses, all of which came to the ground with a crash that wakened the baronet. He sat up straight in his bed and stared round, while the clergyman, in consternation, exclaimed —“Good gracious!”
“Hollo! what is it?” cried the fierce, thin voice of the baronet. “What the devil’s all this? Where’s Crozier? Where’s my servant? Will you, will you, some of you, say where the devil I am?” He was screaming all this, and groping and clutching at either side of the bed’s head for a bell-rope, intending to rouse the house. “Where’s Crozier, I say? Where the devil’s my servant? eh? He’s gone by rail, ain’t he? No one came with me. And where’s this? What is it? Are you all tongue-tied? — haven’t you a word among you?”
The clergyman had lifted his hands in terror at the harangue of the old man of the “tranquil mind.” Alice had taken his thin hand, standing beside him, and was speaking softly in his ear. But his prominent brown eyes were fiercely scanning the strangers, and the hand which clutched hers was trembling with eager fury. “Will some of you say what you mean, or what you are doing, or where I am?” and he screeched another sentence or two, that made the old clergyman very uncomfortable.
“You arrived here, Sir Reginald, about six hours ago — extremely ill, Sir,” said the doctor, who had placed himself close to his patient, and spoke with official authority; “but we have got you all right again, we hope; and this is the ‘Royal Oak,’ the principal hotel of Twyford, on the Dover and London road; and my name is Proby.”
“And what’s all this?” cried the baronet, snatching up one of the medicine-bottles from the little table by his bed, and plucking out the cork and smelling at the fluid. “By heaven?” he screamed, “this is the very thing. I could not tell what d —— d taste was in my mouth, and here it is. Why, my doctor tells me — and he knows his business — it is as much as my life’s worth to give me anything like — like that, pah! assafoetida! If my stomach is upset with this filthy stuff, I give myself up! I’m gone. I shall sink, Sir. Was there no one here, in the name of Heaven, with a grain of sense or a particle of pity, to prevent that beast from literally poisoning me? Egad! I’ll make my son punish him! I’ll make my family hang him if I die!” There was a quaver of misery in his shriek of fury, as if he was on the point of bursting into tears. “Doctor, indeed! who sent for him? I didn’t. Who gave him leave to drug me? Upon my soul, I’ve been poisoned. To think of a creature in my state, dependent on nourishment every hour, having his digestion destroyed! Doctor, indeed! Pay him? Not I, begad,” and he clenched his sentence with an ugly expletive.
But all this concluding eloquence was lost upon the doctor, who had mentioned, in a lofty “aside” to Miss Arden, that “unless sent for he should not call again;” and with a marked politeness to her, and no recognition whatever of the baronet, he had taken his departure.
“I’m not the doctor, Sir Reginald; I’m the clergyman,” said the Reverend Peter Sprott, gravely and timidly, for the prominent brown eyes were threatening him.
“Oh, the clergyman! Oh, I see. Will you be so good as to ring the bell, please, and excuse a sick man giving you that trouble. And is there a post-office near this?”
“Yes, Sir — close by.”
“This is you, Alice? I’m glad you’re here. You must write a letter this moment — a note to your brother. Don’t be afraid — I’m better, a good deal — and tell the people, when they come, to get me some strong soup this moment, and — good evening, Sir, or good-night, or morning, or whatever it is,” he added, to the clergyman, who was taking his leave. “What o’clock is it?” he asked Alice. “Well, you’ll write to your brother to meet me at Mortlake. I have not seen him, now, for how many years? I forget. He’s in town, is he? Very good. And tell him it is perhaps the last time, and I expect him. I suppose he’ll come. Say at a quarter past nine in the evening. The sooner it’s over the better. I expect no good of it; it is only just to try. And I shall leave this early — immediately after breakfast — as quickly as we can. I hate it!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11