The horses went spanking along the frosty road, the Squire driving, his red comforter wrapped round his neck. Mrs. Todhetley sat beside him; Tod and I behind. It was one of the jolliest days that early January ever gave us; dark blue sky, and icicles on the trees: a day to tempt people out. Mrs. Todhetley, getting to her work after breakfast, said it was a shame to stay indoors: and it was hastily decided to drive over to the Whitneys’ place and see them. So the large phaeton was brought round.
I had not expected to go. When there was a probability of their staying anywhere sufficiently long for the horses to be put up, Giles was generally taken: the Squire did not like to give trouble to other people’s servants. It would not matter at the Whitneys’: they had a host of them.
“I don’t know that I care about going,” said Tod, as we stood outside, waiting for the others, Giles at the horses’ heads.
“Not care, Tod! Anna’s at home.”
He flicked his glove at my face for the impudence. We laughed at him about Anna Whitney sometimes. They were great friends. The Squire, hearing some nonsense one day, took it seriously, and told Tod it would be time enough for him to get thinking about sweethearts when he was out of leading-strings. Which of course Tod did not like.
It was a long drive; I can tell you that. And as we turned in at the wide gravel sweep that led up to the house, we saw their family coach being brought round with some luggage on it, the postillion in his undress jacket, just laced at the seams with crimson. The Whitneys never drove from the box.
Whitney Hall was a long red-brick house with a good many windows and wide circular steps leading to the door, its park and grounds lying around it. Anna came running to meet us as we went in, dressed for a journey. She was seventeen; very fair; with a gentle face, and smooth, bright, dark auburn hair; one of the sweetest girls you could see on a summer’s day. Tod was the first to shake hands with her, and I saw her cheeks blush as crimson as Sir John’s state liveries.
“You are going out, my dear,” said Mrs. Todhetley.
“Oh yes,” she answered, the tears rising in her eyes, which were as blue as the dark blue sky. “We have had bad news. William ——”
The dining-room door across the hall opened, and a host of them came forth. Lady Whitney in a plaid shawl, the strings of her bonnet untied; Miss Whitney (Helen), Harry, and some of the young ones behind. Anna’s quiet voice was drowned, for they all began to tell of it together.
Sir John and William were staying at some friend’s house at Ombersley. Lady Whitney thought they would have been home today: instead of which the morning’s post had a brought letter to say that an accident had occurred to William in hunting; some muff who couldn’t ride had gone swerving right against Bill’s horse, and he was thrown. Except that Bill was insensible, nothing further of the damage could be gathered from the letter; for Sir John, if put out, could write no more intelligibly than the Squire. The chief of what he said was — that they were to come off at once.
“We are going, of course; I with the two girls and Harry; the carriage is waiting to take us to the station,” said poor Lady Whitney, her bonnet pushed off. “But I do wish John had explained further: it is such suspense. We don’t think it can be extremely serious, or there would have been a telegram. I’m sure I have shivered at every ring that has come to the door this morning.”
“And the post was never in, as usual, until nearly ten o’clock,” complained Harry. “I wonder my father puts up with it.”
“And the worst is that we had a visitor coming today,” added Helen. “Mamma would have telegraphed to London for her not to start, but there was not time. It’s Sophie Chalk.”
“Who is Sophie Chalk?” asked Tod.
Helen told us, while Lady Whitney was finding places for everyone at the table. They had been taking a scrambling luncheon; sitting or standing: cold beef, mince-pies, and cheese.
“Sophie Chalk was a schoolfellow of mine,” said Helen. “It was an old promise — that she should come to visit us. Different things have caused it to be put off, but we have kept up a correspondence. At length I got mamma to say that she might come as soon as Christmas was turned; and today was fixed. We don’t know what on earth to do.”
“Let her come to us until you see how things turn out,” cried the Squire, in his hearty good-nature, as he cut himself a slice of beef. “We can take her home in the carriage: one of these boys can ride back if you’ll lend him a horse.”
Mrs. Todhetley said he took the very words out of her mouth. The Whitneys were too flurried to affect ceremony, and very gladly accepted the offer. But I don’t think it would ever have been made had the Squire and madam known what was to come of it.
“There will be her luggage,” observed Anna; who usually remembered things for every one. And Lady Whitney looked round in consternation.
“It must come to us by rail; we will send for it from the station,” decided Tod, always ready at a pinch. “What sort of a damsel is this Sophie Chalk, Anna?”
“I never saw her,” replied Anna. “You must ask Helen.”
Tod whispered something to Anna that made her smile and blush. “I’ll write you my sentiments about her to Ombersley,” he said aloud. “Those London girls are something to look at.” And I knew by Tod’s tone that he was prepared not to like Miss Sophie Chalk.
We saw them out to the carriage; the Squire putting in my lady, Tod, Helen and Anna. One of the housemaids, Lettice Lane, was wildly running in and out, bringing things to the carriage. She had lived with us once; but Hannah’s temper and Letty’s propensity for gossip did not get on together. Mrs. Todhetley, when they had driven away, asked her how she liked her place — which she had entered at Michaelmas. Oh, pretty well, Lettice answered: but for her old mother, she should emigrate to Australia. She used to be always saying so at Dyke Manor, and it was one of the things that Hannah would not put up with, telling her decent girls could find work at home.
Tod went off next, on horseback: and, before three o’clock, we drove to the station to meet the London train. The Squire stayed in the carriage, sending me and Mrs. Todhetley on the platform.
Two passengers got out at the small station; a little lady in feathers, and a butcher in a blue frock, who had charge of a calf in the open van. Mrs. Todhetley stepped up to the lady and inquired whether she was Miss Chalk.
“I am Miss Chalk. Have I the honour of speaking to Lady Whitney?”
While matters were being explained, I stood observing her. A very small, slight person, with pretty features white as ivory; and wide-open light blue eyes, that were too close together, and had a touch of boldness in them. It would take a great deal to daunt their owner, if I could read countenances: and that I was always doing so was no fault of mine, for the instinct, strong and irrepressible, lay within me — as old Duffham once said. I did not like her voice; it had no true ring in it; I did not much like her face. But the world in general no doubt found her charming, and the Squire thought her so.
She sat in front with him, a carpet-bag between them: and I, behind, had a great black box crowding my legs. She could not do without that much of her luggage: the rest might come by rail.
“Johnny,” whispered Mrs. Todhetley to me, “I am afraid she is very grand and fashionable. I don’t know how we shall manage to amuse her. Do you like her?”
“Well — she has got a stunning lot of hair.”
“Beautiful hair, Johnny!”
With the hair close before us, I could only say so. It was brown; rather darker than Anna Whitney’s, but with a red tinge in it, and about double the quantity. Nature or art was giving it a wonderful gloss in the light of the setting sun, as she turned her head about, laughing and talking with the Squire. Her dress was some bright purple stuff trimmed with white fur; her hands, lying in repose on her lap, had yellow gauntlets on.
“I’m glad I ordered a duck for dinner, in addition to the boiled veal and bacon, Johnny,” whispered Mrs. Todhetley again. “The fish won’t be much: it is only the cold cod done up in parsley sauce.”
Tod, at home long before, was at the door ready for us when we arrived. I saw her staring at him in the dusk.
“Who was the gentleman that handed me out?” she asked me as we went in.
“Mr. Todhetley’s son.”
“I— think — I have heard Helen Whitney talk of him,” she said in reflection. “He will be very rich, will he not?”
“Pretty well. He will have what his father has before him, Miss Chalk.”
Mrs. Todhetley suggested tea, but she said she would prefer a glass of wine; and went up to her chamber after taking it. Hannah and the housemaid were hastily putting one in order for her. Sleepy with the frosty air, I was nodding over the fire in the drawing-room when the rustle of silk awoke me.
It was Miss Chalk. She came in gleaming like a fairy, her dress shining in the fire-light; for they had not been in to light the candles. It had a green-and-gold tinge, and was cut very low. Did she think we had a party? — or that dressing for dinner was the fashion in our plain country house — as it might have been at a duke’s? Her shoulders and arms were white as snow; she wore a silver necklace, the like of which I had never seen, silver bracelets, and a thick cord of silver twisting in and out of her complicated hair.
“I’m sure it is very kind of your people to take me in,” she said, standing still on the hearthrug in her beauty. “They have lighted a fire in my room; it is so comfortable. I do like a country house. At Lady Augustus Difford’s ——”
Her head went round at the opening of the door. It was Tod. She stepped timidly towards him, like a schoolgirl: dressed as now, she looked no older than one. Tod might have made up his mind not to like her; but he had to surrender. Holding out her hand to him, he could only yield to the vision, and his heart shone in his eyes as he bent them upon her.
“I beg your pardon for having passed you without notice; I did not even thank you for lifting me down; but I was frozen with the drive,” she said, in low tones. “Will you forgive me, Mr. Todhetley?”
Forgive her! As Tod stood there with her hand in his, he looked inclined to eat her. Forgiveness was not enough. He led her to the fire, speaking soft words of gallantry.
“Helen Whitney has often talked to me about you, Mr. Todhetley. I little thought I should ever make your acquaintance; still less, be staying in your father’s house.”
“And I as little dreamt of the good fortune that was in store for me,” answered Tod.
He was a tall, fine young fellow then, rising twenty, looking older than his age; she (as she looked to-night) a delicate, beautiful fairy, of any teens fancy might please to picture. As Tod stood over her, his manner took a gentle air, his eyes a shy light — quite unusual with him. She did not look up, except by a modest glance now and again, dropping her eyes when they met his own. He had the chance to take his fill of gazing, and used it.
Tod was caught. From the very first night that his eyes fell on Sophie Chalk, his heart went out to her. Anna Whitney! What child’s play had the joking about her been to this! Anna might have been his sister, for all the regard he had for her of a certain sort; and he knew it now.
A looker-on sees more than a player, and I did not like one thing — she drew him on to love her. If ever a girl spread a net to entangle a man’s feet, that girl was Sophie Chalk. She went about it artistically, too; in the sweetest, most natural way imaginable; and Tod did not see or suspect an atom of it. No fellow in a similar case ever does. If their heart’s not engaged, their vanity is; and it utterly blinds them. I said a word or two to him, and was nearly knocked over for my pains. At the end of the fortnight — and she was with us nearly that length of time — Tod’s heart had made its choice for weal or for woe.
She took care that it should be so; she did, though he cut my head off now for saying it. You shall judge. She began on that first night when she came down in her glistening silk, with the silver on her neck and hair. In the drawing-room, after dinner, she sat by him on the sofa, talking in a low voice, her face turned to him, lifting her eyes and dropping them again. My belief is, she must have been to a school where they taught eye-play. Tod thought it was sweet, natural, shy modesty. I thought it was all artistic. Mrs. Todhetley was called from the room on domestic matters; the Squire, gone to sleep in his dinner-chair, had not come in. After tea, when all were present, she went to the piano, which no one ever opened but me, and played and sang, keeping Tod by her side to turn the music, and to talk to her at available moments. In point of execution, her singing was perfect, but the voice was rather harsh — not a note of real melody in it.
After breakfast the next morning, when we were away together, she came to us in her jaunty hat, all feathers, and her purple dress with its white fur. She lured him off to show her the dyke and goodness knows what else, leaving Lena, who had come out with her, to be taken home by me. In the afternoon Tod drove her out in the pony-chaise; they had settled the drive between them down by the dyke, and I know she had plotted for it, just as surely as though I had been behind the hedge listening. I don’t say Tod was loth; it was quite the other way from the first. They took a two-hours’ drive, returning home at dusk; and then she laughed and talked with him and me round the fire until it was time to get ready for dinner. That second evening she came down in a gauzy sort of dress, with a thin white body. Mrs. Todhetley thought she would be cold, but she said she was used to it.
And so it went on; never were they apart for an hour — no, nor scarcely for a minute in the day.
At first Mr. and Mrs. Todhetley saw nothing. Rather were they glad Tod should be so attentive to a stranger; for special politeness had not previously been one of Tod’s virtues; but they could only notice as the thing went on. Mrs. Todhetley grew to have an uneasy look in her eyes, and one day the Squire spoke out. Sophie Chalk had tied a pink woollen scarf over her head to go out with Tod to see the rabbits fed: he ran back for something, and the Squire caught his arm.
“Don’t carry that on too far, Joe. You don’t know who the girl is.”
“What nonsense, sir!” returned Tod, with a ready laugh; but he turned the colour of a peony.
We did not know much about her, except that she seemed to be on the high ropes, talking a good deal of great people, and of Lord and Lady Augustus Difford, with whom she had been staying for two months before Christmas. Her home in London, she said, was at her sister’s, who had married a wealthy merchant, and lived fashionably in Torriana Square. Mrs. Todhetley did not like to appear inquisitive, and would not ask questions. Miss Chalk was with us as the Whitneys’ friend, and that was sufficient.
Bill Whitney’s hurt turned out to be something complicated about the ribs. There was no danger after the first week, and they returned home during the second, bringing Bill with them. Helen Whitney wrote the same day for Sophie Chalk, and she said that her mamma would be happy also to see Tod and me for a short time.
We went over in the large phaeton, Tod driving, Miss Chalk beside him; I and Dwarf Giles behind. She had thanked Mrs. Todhetley in the prettiest manner; she told the Squire, as he handed her into the carriage, that she should never forget his kindness, and hoped some time to find an opportunity of repaying it.
Such kissing between Helen and Sophie Chalk! I thought they’d never leave off. Anna stood by Tod, while he looked on: a hungry light in his eyes, as if envying Helen the kisses she took. He had no eyes now for Anna. Lady Whitney asked if we would go upstairs to William: he was impatient to see us both.
“Halloa, old Johnny!”
He was lying on his back on a broad flat sofa, looking just as well as ever in the face. They had given him up the best bedroom and dressing-room because he was ill: nice rooms, both — with the door opening between.
“How did it happen, Bill?”
“Goodness knows! Some fellow rode his horse pretty near over mine — don’t believe he had ever been astride anything but a donkey before. Where’s Tod?”
“Somewhere. — I thought he was close behind me.”
“I’m so glad you two have come. It’s awfully dull, lying here all day.”
“Are you obliged to lie?”
“Carden says so.”
“Do you have Carden?”
“As if our folk would be satisfied without him in a surgical case, and one of danger! He was telegraphed for on the spot, and came over in less than an hour. It happened near the Ombersley station. He comes here every other day, and Featherston between whiles as his locum tenens.”
Tod burst in with a laugh. He had been talking to the girls in the gallery outside. Leaving him and Bill Whitney to have out their own chaffer, I went through the door to the other room — the fire there was the largest. “How do you do, sir?”
Some one in a neat brown gown and close white cap, sewing at a table behind the door, had got up to say this with a curtsey. Where had I seen her? — a woman of three or four and thirty, with a meek, delicate face, and a subdued expression. She saw the puzzle.
“I am Harry Lease’s widow, sir. He was pointsman at South Crabb?”
Why, yes, to be sure! And she was not much altered either. But it was a good while now since he died, and she and the children had moved away at the time. I shook hands: the sight of her brought poor Harry Lease to my mind — and many other things.
“Are you living here?”
“I have been nursing young Mr. Whitney, sir. Mr. Carden sent me over from Worcester to the place where he was lying; and my lady thought I might as well come on here with them for a bit, though he don’t want more done for him now than a servant could do. What a deal you have grown, sir!”
“Have I? You should see Joseph Todhetley. You knew me, though, Mrs. Lease?”
“I remembered your voice, sir. Besides, I heard Miss Anna say that you were coming here.”
Asking after Polly, she gave me the family history since Lease’s death. First of all, after moving to her mother’s at Worcester, she tried to get a living at making gloves. Her two youngest children caught some disorder, and died; and then she took to go out nursing. In that she succeeded so well — for it seemed to be her vocation, she said — as to be brought under the notice of some of the medical gentlemen of the town. They gave her plenty to do, and she earned an excellent living, Polly and the other two being cared for by the grandmother.
“After the scuffle, and toil, and sorrow of the old days, nursing seems like a holiday to me, Master Ludlow,” she concluded; “and I am at home with the children for a day or two as often as I can be.”
The call was Bill Whitney’s, and I went into the other room. Helen was there, but not Tod. She and Bill were disputing.
“I tell you, William, I shall bring her in. She has asked to come. You can’t think how nice she is.”
“And I tell you, Helen, that I won’t have her brought in. What do I want with your Sophie Chalks?”
“It will be your loss.”
“So be it! I can’t do with strange girls here.”
“You will see that.”
“Now look here, Helen —I won’t have it. To-morrow is Mr. Carden’s day for coming, and I’ll tell him that I can’t be left in peace. He will soon give you a word of a sort.”
“Oh, well, if you are so serious about it as that, let it drop,” returned Helen, good-humouredly. “I only thought to give you pleasure — and Sophie Chalk did ask to come in.”
“Who is this Sophie Chalk? That’s about the nineteenth time I have asked it.”
“The sweetest girl in the world.”
“Let that pass. Who is she?”
“I went to school with her at Miss Lakon’s. She used to do my French for me, and touch up my drawings. She vowed a lasting friendship, and I am not going to forget it. Every one loves her. Lord and Lady Augustus Difford have just had her staying with them for two months.”
“Good souls!” cried Bill, satirically.
“She is the loveliest fairy in the world, and dresses like an angel. Will you see her now, William?”
Helen went off with a flounce. Bill was half laughing, half peevish over it. Confinement made him fretful.
“As if I’d let them bring a parcel of girls in to bother me! You’ve had her for these past three weeks, I hear, Johnny.”
“Pretty near it.”
“Do you like her?”
“What sort of a creature is the syren?”
“She’d fascinate the eyes out of your head, Bill, give her the chance.”
“Then I’ll be shot if she shall have the chance as far as I am concerned! Lease!”— raising his voice —“keep all strange ladies out of here. If they attempt to enter, tell them we’ve got rats about.”
“Very well, sir.”
Other visitors were staying in the house. A Miss Deveen, and her companion Miss Cattledon. We saw them first at dinner. Miss Deveen sat by Sir John — an ancient lady, active and upright, with a keen, pleasant face and white hair. She had on a worked-muslin shirt-front, with three emerald studs in it that glittered as bright as diamonds. They were beautiful. After dinner, when the four old ones began whist, and we were at the other end of the drawing-room in a group, some one spoke of the studs.
“They are nothing compared with some of her jewellery,” said Helen Whitney. “She has a whole set of most beautiful diamonds. I hardly know what they are worth.”
“But those emeralds she has on to-night must be of great value,” cried Sophie Chalk. “See how they sparkle!”
It made us all turn. As Miss Deveen moved in throwing down her cards, the rays from the wax-lights fell on the emeralds, bringing out the purest green ever imagined by a painter.
“I should like to steal them,” said Sophie Chalk; “they would look well on me.”
It made us laugh. Tod had his eyes fixed on her, a strange love in their depths. Anna Whitney, kneeling on the ground behind me, could see it.
“I would rather steal a set of pink topaz studs that she has,” spoke Helen; “and the opals, too. Miss Deveen is great in studs.”
“Why in studs?”
“Because she always wears this sort of white body; it is her habitual evening dress, with satin skirts. I know she has a different set of studs for every day in the month.”
“Who is she?” asked Sophie Chalk.
“A cousin of mamma’s. She has a great deal of money, and no one in particular to leave it to. Harry says he hopes she’ll remember, in making her will, that he is only a poor younger son.”
“Just you shut up, Helen,” interrupted Harry, in a whisper. “I believe that companion has ears at the back of her head.”
Miss Cattledon glanced round from the whist-table, as though the ears were there and wide open. She was a wiry lady of middle age, quite forty, with a screwed-in waist and creaking stays, a piece of crimson velvet round her long thin neck, her scanty hair light as ginger.
“It is she that has charge of the jewel-box,” spoke Helen, when we thought it safe to begin again. “Miss Deveen is a wonderful old lady for sixty; she has come here without a maid this time, and dresses herself. I don’t see what use Miss Cattledon is to her, unless it is to act as general refrigerator, but she gets a hundred a year salary and some of the old satins. Sophie, I’m sure she heard what we said — that we should like to steal the trinkets.”
“Hope she relished it!” quoth Harry. “She’ll put them under double lock and key, for fear we should break in.”
It was all jesting. Amid the subdued laughing, Tod bent his face over Sophie Chalk, his hand touching the lace on her sleeve. She had on blue to-night with a pearl necklace.
“Will you sing that song for me, Miss Chalk?”
She rose and took his arm. Helen jumped up and arrested them ere they reached the piano.
“We must not have any music just now. Papa never likes it when they are at whist.”
“How very unreasonable of him!” cried Tod, looking fiercely at Sir John’s old red nose and steel spectacles.
“Of course it is,” agreed Helen. “If he played for guinea stakes instead of sixpenny, he could not be more particular about having no noise. Let us go into the study: we can do as we like there.”
We all trooped off. It was a small square room with a shabby carpet and worn horse-hair chairs. Helen stirred up the fire; and Sophie sat down on a low stool and said she’d tell us a fairy tale.
We had been there just a week when it came out. The week was a good one. Long walks in the frosty air; a huge swing between the cedar trees; riding by turns on the rough Welsh pony for fun; bagatelle indoors, work, music, chatter; one dinner-party, and a small dance. Half my time was spent in Bill’s room. Tod seemed to find little leisure for coming up; or for anything else, except Sophie Chalk. It was a gone case with Tod: looking on, I could see that; but I don’t think any one else saw it, except Anna. He liked Sophie too well to make it conspicuous. Harry made open love to her; Sir John said she was the prettiest little lady he had seen for many a day. I dare say Tod told her the same in private.
And she? Well, I don’t know what to say. That she kept Tod at her side, quietly fascinating him always, was certain; but her liking for him did not appear real. To me it seemed that she was acting it. “I can’t make that Sophie Chalk out, Tod,” I said to him one day by the beeches: “she seems childishly genuine, but I believe she’s just as sharp as a needle.” Tod laughed idly, and told me I was the simplest muff that ever walked in shoe-leather. She was no rider, and some one had to walk by her side when she sat on the Welsh pony, holding her on at all the turnings. It was generally Tod: she made believe to be frightfully timid with him.
It was at the end of the week that the loss was discovered: Miss Deveen’s emerald studs were gone. You never heard such a commotion. She, the owner, took it quietly, but Miss Cattledon made noise enough for ten. The girls were talking round the study fire the morning after the dance, and I was writing a note at the table, when Lettice Lane came in, her face white as death.
“I beg your pardon, young ladies, for asking, but have any of you seen Miss Deveen’s emerald studs, please?”
They turned round in surprise.
“Miss Deveen’s studs!” exclaimed Helen. “We are not likely to have seen them, Lettice. Why do you ask?”
“Because, Miss Helen, they are gone — that is, Miss Cattledon says they are. But, with so much jewellery as there is in that case, it is very easy to overlook two or three little things.”
Why Lettice Lane should have shaken all over in telling this, was a marvel. Her very teeth chattered. Anna inquired; but all the answer given by the girl was, that it had “put her into a twitter.” Sophie Chalk’s countenance was full of compassion, and I liked her for it.
“Don’t let it trouble you, Lettice,” she said kindly. “If the studs are missing, I dare say they will be found. Just before I came down here my sister lost a brooch from her dressing-table. The whole house was searched for it, the servants were uncomfortable ——”
“And was it found, miss?” interrupted Lettice, too eager to let her finish.
“Of course it was found. Jewels don’t get hopelessly lost in gentlemen’s houses. It had fallen down, and, caught in the lace of the toilette drapery, was lying hid within its folds.”
“Oh, thank you, miss; yes, perhaps the studs have fallen too,” said Lettice Lane as she went out. Helen looked after her in some curiosity.
“Why should the loss trouble her? Lettice has nothing to do with Miss Deveen’s jewels.”
“Look here, Helen, I wish we had never said we should like to steal the things,” spoke Sophie Chalk. “It was all in jest, of course, but this would not be a nice sequel to it.”
“Why — yes — you did say it, some of you,” cried Anna, who, until then, had seemed buried in thought; and her face flushed.
“What if we did?” retorted Helen, looking at her in some slight surprise.
Soon after this, in going up to Bill’s room, I met Lettice Lane. She was running down with a plate, and looked whiter than ever.
“Are the studs found, Lettice?”
The answer was short, the manner scared. Helen had wondered why the loss should affect her; and so did I.
“Where’s the use of your being put out over it, Lettice? You did not take them.”
“No, Master Johnny, I did not; but — but ——” looking round and dropping her voice, “I am afraid I know who did; and it was through me. I’m a’most mad.”
This was rather mysterious. She gave no opportunity for more, but ran down as though the stairs were on fire.
I went on to Bill’s chamber, and found Tod and Harry with him: they were laughing over a letter from some fellow at Oxford. Standing at the window close by the inner door, which was ajar, I heard Lettice Lane go into the dressing-room and speak to Mrs. Lease in a half whisper.
“I can’t bear this any longer,” she said. “If you have taken those studs, for Heaven’s sake put them back. I’ll make some excuse — say I found them under the carpet, or slipped under the drawers — anything — only put them back!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” replied Mrs. Lease, who always spoke as though she had only half a voice.
“Yes, you do. You have got the studs.”
By the pause that ensued, Nurse Lease seemed to have lost the power of speech. Lettice took the opportunity to put it more strongly.
“If you’ve got them about you, give them into my hand now, and I’ll manage the rest. Not a living soul shall ever know of this if you will. Oh, do give them to me!”
Mrs. Lease spoke then. “If you say this again, Lettice Lane, I’ll tell my lady all. And indeed, I have been wanting to tell her ever since I heard that something had gone. It was for your sake I did not.”
“For my sake!” shrieked Lettice.
“Well, it was. I’m sure I’d not like to say it if I could help, Lettice Lane; but it did strike me that you might have been tempted to — to — you know.”
So it was accusation and counter-accusation. Which of the two confessed first was uncertain; but in a short time the whole was known to the house, and to Lady Whitney.
On the previous night the upper housemaid was in bed with some slight illness, and it fell to Lettice Lane to put the rooms to rights after the ladies had dressed. Instead of calling one of the other servants she asked Mrs. Lease to help her — which must have been for nothing but to gossip with the nurse, as Lady Whitney said. On Miss Deveen’s dressing-table stood her case of jewels, the key in the lock. Lettice lifted the lid. On the top tray glittered a heap of ornaments, and the two women feasted their eyes with them. Nurse Lease declared that she never put “a finger’s end” on a single article. Lettice could not say as much. Neither (if they were to be believed) had observed the green studs; and the upper tray was not lifted to see what was underneath. Miss Cattledon, who made one at the uproar, put in her word at this, to say they were telling a falsehood, and her face had enough vinegar in it to pickle a salmon. Other people might like Miss Cattledon, but I did not. She was in a silent rage with Miss Deveen for having chosen to keep the jewel-case during their stay at Whitney Hall, and for carelessly leaving the key in it. Miss Deveen took the loss calmly, and was as cool as a cucumber.
“I don’t know that the emerald studs were in the upper tray last night; I don’t remember to have seen them,” Miss Deveen said, as if bearing out the assertion of the two women.
“Begging your pardon, madam, they were there,” stiffly corrected Miss Cattledon. “I saw them. I thought you would put them on, as you were going to wear your green satin gown, and asked if I should lay them out; but you told me you would choose for yourself.”
Miss Deveen had worn diamonds; we had noticed their lustre.
“I’m sure it is a dreadful thing to have happened!” said poor Lady Whitney, looking flurried. “I dare not tell Sir John; he would storm the windows out of their frames. Lease, I am astonished at you. How could you dare open the box?”
“I never did open it, my lady,” was the answer. “When I got round from the bed, Lettice was standing with it open before her.”
“I don’t think there need be much doubt as to the guilty party,” struck in Miss Cattledon with intense acrimony, her eyes swooping down upon Lettice. And if they were not sly and crafty eyes, never you trust me again.
“I do not think there need be so much trouble made about it,” corrected Miss Deveen. “It’s not your loss, Cattledon — it is mine: and my own fault too.”
But Miss Cattledon would not take the hint. She stuck to it like a leech, and sifted evidence as subtly as an Old Bailey lawyer. Mrs. Lease carried innocence on the surface; no one could doubt it: Lettice might have been taken for a seven-years’ thief. She sobbed, and choked, and rambled in her tale, and grew as confused as a hunted hare, contradicting herself at every second word. The Australian scheme (though it might have been nothing but foolish talk) told against her now.
Things grew more uncomfortable as the day went on, the house being ransacked from head to foot. Sophie Chalk cried. She was not rich, she said to me, but she would give every shilling of money she had with her for the studs to be found; and she thought it was very wrong to accuse Lettice, when so many strangers had been in the house. I liked Sophie better than I had liked her yet: she looked regularly vexed.
Sir John got to know of it: Miss Cattledon told him. He did not storm the windows out, but he said the police must come in and see Lettice Lane. Miss Deveen, hearing of this, went straight to Sir John, and assured him that if he took any serious steps while the affair was so doubtful, she would quit his house on the instant, and never put foot in it again. He retorted that it must have been Lettice Lane — common sense and Miss Cattledon could not be mistaken — and that it ought to be investigated.
They came to a compromise. Lettice was not to be given into custody at present; but she must quit the Hall. That, said Miss Deveen, was of course as Sir John and Lady Whitney pleased. To tell the truth, suspicion did seem strong against her.
She went away at eventide. One of the men was charged to drive her to her mother’s, about five miles off. I and Anna, hastening home from our walk — for we had lost the others, and the stars were coming out in the wintry sky — saw them as we passed the beeches. Lettice’s face was swollen with crying.
“We are so sorry this has happened, Lettice,” Anna gently said, going up to the gig. “I do hope it will be cleared up soon. Remember one thing — I shall think well of you, until it is. I do not suspect you.”
“I am turned out like a criminal, Miss Anna,” sobbed the girl. “They searched me to the skin; that Miss Cattledon standing on to see that the housekeeper did it properly; and they have searched my boxes. The only one to speak a kind word to me as I came away, was Miss Deveen herself. It’s a disgrace I shall never get over.”
“That’s rubbish, Lettice, you know,”— for I thought I’d put in a good word, too. “You will soon forget it, once the right fellow is pitched upon. Good luck to you, Lettice.”
Anna shook hands with her, and the man drove on, Lettice sobbing aloud. Not hearing Anna’s footsteps, I looked round and saw she had sat down on one of the benches, though it was white with frost. I went back.
“Don’t you go and catch cold, Anna.”
“Johnny, you cannot think how this is troubling me.”
“Why you — in particular?”
“Well — for one thing I can’t believe that she is guilty. I have always liked Lettice.”
“So did we at Dyke Manor. But if she is not guilty, who is?”
“I don’t know, Johnny,” she continued, her eyes taking a thoughtful, far-off look. “What I cannot help thinking, is this — though I feel half ashamed to say it. Several visitors were in the house last night; suppose one should have found her way into the room, and taken them? If so, how cruel this must be on Lettice Lane.”
“Sophie Chalk suggested the same thing to me today. But a visitor would not do such a thing. Fancy a lady stealing jewels!”
“The open box might prove a strong temptation. People do things in such moments, Johnny, that they would fly from at other times.”
“Sophie said that too. You have been talking together.”
“I have not exchanged a word with Sophie Chalk on the subject. The ideas might occur naturally to any of us.”
I did not think it at all likely to have been a visitor. How should a visitor know there was an open jewel-box in Miss Deveen’s room? The chamber, too, was an inner one, and therefore not liable to be entered accidentally. To get to it you had to go through Miss Cattledon’s.
“The room is not easy of access, you know, Anna.”
“Not very. But it might be reached.”
“I say, are you saying this for any purpose?”
She turned round and looked at me rather sharply.
“Yes. Because I do not believe it was Lettice Lane.”
“Was it Miss Cattledon herself, Anna? I have heard of such curious things. Her eyes took a greedy look today when they rested on the jewels.”
As if the suggestion frightened her — and I hardly know how I came to whisper it — Anna started up, and ran across the lawn, never looking back or stopping until she reached the house.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55