Mrs. Cramp's Tenant


Ellen Wood

First published in The Argosy, 1881.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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Mrs. Cramp’s Tenant

1.

It was autumn weather, and we had just arrived at Crabb Cot. When you have been away from a familiar place, whether it may be only for days, or whether it may be for weeks or months or years, you are eager on returning to it to learn what has transpired during your absence, concerning friends or enemies, the parish or the public.

Bob Letsom ran in that first evening, and we had him to ourselves; the Squire and Mrs. Todhetley were still in the dining-room. I asked after Coralie Fontaine.

“Oh, Coralie’s all right,” said he.

“Do the old ladies go on at her still?” cried Tod.

Bob laughed. “I think they’ve stopped that, finding it hopeless.”

When Sir Dace Fontaine died, now eighteen months ago, the two girls, Coralie and Verena, were left alone. Verena shortly went back to the West Indies to marry George Bazalgette, Coralie remained at Oxlip Grange. Upon that, all the old ladies in the place, as Tod had ungallantly put it, beginning with Bob’s mother, set on to lecture her: telling her she must not continue to live alone, she must take a companion of mature age. Why must she not live alone, Coralie returned: she had old Ozias to protect her from robbers, and her maid-servants to see to her clothes and her comforts. Because it was not proper, said the old ladies. Coralie laughed at that, and told them not to be afraid; she could take care of herself. And apparently she did. She had learnt to be independent in America; could not be brought to understand English stiffness and English pride: and she would go off to London and elsewhere for a week or two at a time, just as though she had been sixty years of age.

“I have an idea she will not be Coralie Fontaine much longer,” continued Letsom.

“Who will she be, then?”

“Coralie Rymer.”

“You can’t mean that she is going to take up with Ben!”

“Well, I fancy so. Some of us thought they were making up to one another before Sir Dace died—when Ben was attending him. Don’t you recollect how much old Fontaine liked Ben?—he’d have had him by his side always. Ben’s getting on like a house on fire; has unusual skill in surgery and is wonderful at operations: he performed a very critical one upon old Massock this summer, and the man is about again as sturdy and impudent as ever.”

“Does Ben live down here entirely?”

“He goes up to London between whiles—in pursuit of his studies and the degrees he means to take. He is there now. Oh, he’ll get on. You’ll see.”

“Well, what else, Letsom?” cried Tod. “You have told us no news about anybody yet.”

“Because there’s none to tell.”

“How do those two old dames get on—the Dennets?”

“Oh, they are gone off to some baths in Germany for a twelvemonth, with suppressed gout, and their house is let to a mysterious tenant.”

“Mysterious in what way?”

“Well, nobody sees her, and she keeps the doors bolted and barred. The Dennets left it all in Mrs. Cramp’s hands, being intimate with her, for they started in a hurry, and she put it into a new agent’s hands at Worcester, and he put an advertisement in the papers. Some lady answered it, a stranger; she agreed to all conditions by letter, took possession of the house, and has shut herself up as if something uncanny were inside it. Mrs. Cramp does not like it at all; and queer rumours are beginning to go about.”

“What’s her name?”

“Nobody knows.”

The house spoken of was North Villa, where Jacob Chandler used to live. When the Chandlers went down in the world it was taken on lease by the Miss Dennets, two steady middle-aged sisters.

The first visit we paid the following morning was to Oxlip Grange, to see Coralie. Meeting the Squire on the way he said he would go with us. North Villa lies not far from us, soon after you turn into the Islip Road, and the Grange is about a quarter-of-a-mile farther on. I took a good stare at the villa in passing. Two of the upstairs windows were open, but the mysterious tenant was not to be seen.

Old Ozias was in the Grange garden, helping the gardener; it was how he professed to fill up his time; and the door was opened by a tall, smart maid, with curled hair and pink bows in her cap. Where had I seen her? Why, at the lodgings in the Marylebone Road in London! She was Maria, who had been housemaid there during the enacting of that tragedy.

Coralie Fontaine sat in her pretty parlour, one opening from the large drawing-room, flirting a paper hand-screen between her face and the fire, which she would have, as Sir Dace used to, whether it might be cold weather or hot. Small and pale, her black hair smooth and silky, her dark eyes meeting ours honestly, her chin pointed, her pretty teeth white, she was not a whit changed. Her morning dress was white, with scarlet ribbons, and she was downright glad to see us. The Squire inquired after Verena.

“She is quite well,” replied Coralie. “At least, she would be but for grumbling.”

“What has she to grumble about, my dear?”

“Nothing,” said Coralie.

“Then why does she do it? Dear me! Is her husband not kind to her?”

Coralie laughed at the notion. “He is too kind, Mr. Todhetley. Kindness to people is George Bazalgette’s weakness, especially to Verena. Her grievance lies in George’s sister, Magnolia Bazalgette.”

“What a splendacious name!” interrupted Tod. “Magnolia!”

“She was named after the estate, Magnolia Range, a very beautiful place and one of the finest properties on the island,” said Coralie. “Magnolia lives with George, it was always her home, you see; and Verena does not take kindly to her. She complains that Magnolia domineers over the household and over herself. It is just one of Verena’s silly fancies; she always wants to be first and foremost; and I have written her one or two sharp letters.”

“Coralie,” I said here, “is not the girl, who showed us in, Maria?—she who used to live in those lodgings in London?”

Coralie nodded. “The last time I was staying in London, Maria came to me, saying she had left her place and was in want of one. I engaged her at once. I like the girl.”

“She is an uncommonly smart girl in the way of curls and caps,” remarked Tod.

“I like smart people about me,” laughed Coralie.

Who should come in then but Mrs. Cramp. She was smart. A flounced gown of shiny material, green in one light, red in another, and a purple bonnet with white strings. She was Stephen Cramp’s widow, formerly Mary Ann Chandler; her speech was honest and homely, and her comely face wore a look of perplexity.

“I don’t much like the look of things down yonder,” she began, nodding her head in the direction of North Villa and as she sat down her flounces went up, displaying her white cotton stockings and low, tied shoes. “I have been calling there again, and I can’t get in.”

“Nobody can get in,” said Coralie.

“They have put a chain on the door, and they answer people through it. No chain was ever there before, as long as I have known the house. I paid no attention to the things people were saying,” continued Mrs. Cramp; “but I did not much like something I heard last night. I’ll see the lady, I said to myself this morning, and down to the house I went, walked up the garden, and——”

“But what is it that people have been saying, Mrs. Cramp?” struck in the Squire. “These boys have heard something or other.”

“What’s said is, that there’s something queer about the lady,” replied Mrs. Cramp. “I can’t make it out myself, Squire. Some people say she’s pig-faced.”

Pig-faced!

“Well, they do. Last night I heard she was black. And, putting two and two together, as one can’t help doing in such a case, I don’t like that report at all.”

The Squire stared—and began thinking. He believed he knew what Mrs. Cramp meant.

“Well, I went there, and rang,” she resumed. “And they opened the door a couple of inches and talked to me over the chain: some sour-faced woman-servant of middle age. I told her I had come to see my tenant—her mistress; she answered that her mistress could not be seen, and shut the door in my face.”

Mrs. Cramp untied her white satin bonnet-strings, tilted back her bonnet, caught up the painted fan, fellow to the one Coralie was handling, and fanned herself while she talked.

“As long as it was said the lady was pig-faced and hid herself from people’s eyes accordingly, I thought little of it, you understand, Squire; but if she is black, that’s a different matter. It sets one fearing that some scandal may come of it. The Miss Dennets would drop down in a fit on the spot if they heard that person had got into their house.”

Coralie laughed.

“Ah, my dear, you careless young people make jokes of things that would fret us old ones to fiddle-strings,” reproved Mrs. Cramp. “The four Indians may be with her, you know, and most likely are, concealed in cupboards. You don’t know what such desperate characters might do—break into your house here some dark night and kill you in your bed. It is not a pleasant thing, is it, Squire?”

“That it’s not, if it be as you put it,” assented he, growing hot.

“Look here, Mrs. Cramp,” interposed Tod. “If the lady has never been seen, how can it be known she is black, or pig-faced?”

“I’ve never treated the pig-faced report as anything but rubbish,” answered Mrs. Cramp; “but I’ll tell you, Mr. Joseph, how it has come out that she’s black. I heard from Susan Dennet yesterday morning, and she asked whether any letters were lying at home for her or Mary. So I sent my servant Peggy last evening to inquire—a stupid thing of a girl she is, comes from over beyond Bromyard. Peggy went to the kitchen-door—and they have a chain there as well as to the other—and was told that no letters had come for the Miss Dennets. It was growing dark, and Peggy, who had never been on the premises before, mistook the path, and turned into one that took her to the latticed arbour. Many a time have I sat there in poor Jacob’s days, with the Malvern Hills in the distance.”

“So have I, Mary Ann,” added the Squire, calling her unconsciously by her Christian name, his thoughts back in the time when they were boy and girl together.

“Peggy found her mistake then, and was turning back, when there stood in her path a black woman, who must have followed her down: black face, black hands, all black. What’s more, she was wrapped round in yellow; a shroud, Peggy declares, but the girl was quite beyond herself with fright, and could not be expected to know shrouds from cloaks in the twilight. The woman stood stock still, never speaking, only staring; and Peggy tore back in her terror, and fell into the arms of a railway-porter, just then bringing a parcel from the station. ‘Goodness help us!’ she shrieked out, ‘there’s a blackamore in the path yonder:’ and the girl came home more dead than alive. That is how I’ve learnt the mysterious lady is black,” summed up Mrs. Cramp; “and knowing what we do know, I don’t like it.”

Neither did the Squire. And Mrs. Cramp departed in a flutter. We all liked her, in spite of her white stockings and shoes.


Some few months before this, a party of strangers appeared one morning at Worcester, and took handsome lodgings there. Four fashionable-looking gentlemen, with dark skins and darker hair; natives, apparently, of some remote quarter of the globe, say Asia or Africa, whose inhabitants are of a fine copper colour; and one lady, understood to be their sister, who was darker than they were—almost quite black. Two rather elderly and very respectable English servants, man and wife, were in their train. They lived well, these people, regardless of cost: had sumptuous dishes on their table, choice fruits, hot-house flowers. They made no acquaintance whatever in the town, rarely went abroad on foot, but took an airing most days in a large old rumbling open barouche, supplied by the livery stables. Worcester, not less alive to curiosity than is any other city, grew to be all excitement over these people, watched their movements with admiration, and called them “The Indians.” The lady was seen in the barouche but once, enveloped in a voluminous yellow mantle, the hood of which was drawn over her face. It transpired that she was not in good health, and one evening, when she had a fainting-fit, a doctor was called in to her. His report to the town the next day was that she was really a coloured woman, very much darker than her brothers, with the manners and culture of a lady, but strikingly reserved. After a sojourn of about two months, the party, servants and all, quitted their lodgings, giving the landlady only an hour’s notice, to spend, as they gave out, a week at Malvern. They paid their bill in full, asked permission to leave two or three of their heaviest trunks with her, and departed.

But they did not go to Malvern. It was not discovered where they did go. Nothing more was seen of them; nothing certain heard. The trunks they had left proved to be empty; some accounts owing in the town came in to be paid. All this looked curious. By-and-by a frightful rumour arose—that these people had been mixed up in some dreadful crime: one report said forgery, another murder. It was affirmed that Scotland Yard had been looking for them for months, and that they had disguised themselves as Indians (to quote the word Worcester used) to avert detection. But some observant individuals maintained that they were Indians (to use the word again), that no disguise or making-up could have converted their faces to what they were. Nothing more had as yet been heard of them, saving that a sum of money, enough to cover the small amount of debts left behind, was transmitted to the landlady anonymously. Excitement had not yet absolutely died away in the town. It was popularly supposed that the Indians were lying concealed in some safe hiding-place, perhaps not far distant.

And now, having disclosed this strange episode, the fame of which had gone about the county, you will be able to understand Mrs. Cramp’s consternation. It appeared to be only too probable that the hiding-place was North Villa: of the lady in the yellow mantle, at any rate, whether her four brothers were with her or not.

2.

I sat, perched on the fence of the opposite field, as though waiting for some one, whistling softly, and taking crafty looks at North Villa, for our curiosity as to its doings grew with the days, when a fine, broad-shouldered, well-dressed gentleman came striding along the road, flicking his cane.

“Well, Johnny!”

At the first moment I did not know him, I really did not; he looked too grand a gentleman for Benjamin Rymer, too handsome. It was Ben, however. The improvement in him had been going on gradually for some years now; and Ben, in looks, in manner, ay, and in conduct, could hold his own with the best in the land.

“I did not know you were down here,” I said, meeting his offered hand. Time was when he would not have presumed to hold out his hand to me unsolicited, boy though I was in those old days: he might have thought nothing of offering it to a nabob now.

“I got down yesterday,” said Ben. “Glad enough to have taken my M.D., and to have done with London.”

“I thought you did not mean to take a physician’s degree.”

“I did not, as I chiefly go in for surgery. But when I considered that my life will probably be spent in this country place, almost as a general practitioner, I thought it best to take it. It gives one a standing, you see, Ludlow. And so,” he added laughing, “I am Dr. Rymer. What are you sitting here for, Johnny? Watching that house?”

“Have you heard about it?” I asked.

“Coralie—Miss Fontaine—told me of it when I was with her last evening. Is there anything to be seen?”

“Nothing at all. I have been here for twenty minutes and have not caught a glimpse of any one, black or white. Yesterday, when Salmon’s boy took some grocery there, he saw the black lady peeping at him behind the blind.”

“It seems a strange affair altogether,” remarked Ben. “The sudden appearance of the people at Worcester, that was strange, as was their sudden disappearance. If it be in truth they who are hiding themselves here, I can’t say much for their wisdom: they are too near to the old scene.”

“I wonder you don’t set up in London,” I said to Ben as we walked onwards.

“It is what I should like to do of all things,” he replied in a tone of eagerness, “and confine my practice wholly to surgery. But my home must be here. Circumstances are stronger than we are.”

“Will it be at Oxlip Grange?” I quietly asked.

Ben turned his head to study my face, and what he read there told tales. “I see,” he said, “you know. Yes, it will be at Oxlip Grange. That has been settled a long while past.”

“I wish you every happiness; all good luck.”

“Thank you, Johnny.”

We were nearing the place in question when Mrs. Cramp turned out of its small iron gate, that stood beside the ornamental large ones, in her bewitching costume of green and purple. “And how are you, Mr. Benjamin?” she asked. “Come down for good?”

“Yes.”

“And he is Dr. Rymer now, Mrs. Cramp,” I added.

“I am glad to hear it,” said she warmly, “and I’ll shake your hand on the strength of it,” and she gave his hand a hearty shake. “At one time you said you never would take a doctor’s degree.”

“So I did,” said Ben. “But somebody wished me to take it.”

“Your mother, I guess,”—though, for my part, I did not suppose it was his mother. “Any way, you’ll do well now.”

“I hope so,” answered Ben. “You look fluttered, Mrs. Cramp.”

“I’m more fluttered than I care to be; I am living in a chronic state of flutter,” avowed Mrs. Cramp. “It’s over that tenant of mine; that woman down yonder,” pointing towards North Villa.

“Why should you flutter yourself over her?” he remonstrated. “She is not your tenant.”

“Indeed but she is my tenant. To all intents and purposes she is my tenant. The Miss Dennets left the house in my hands.”

“How was it you did not have references with her, Mrs. Cramp?”

“That donkey of an agent never asked for any,” retorted she. “He was thrown off his guard, he says, by her sending him the first month’s rent in advance, and telling him she had only one or two old servants, and no children, and the furniture would be as much cared for as if it were made of gold. Last night she sends to me the advance rent for next month, though it’s not due for two days yet, and that has fluttered me, I can tell you, Mr. Benjamin, for I was hoping she wouldn’t pay, and that I might be able to get her out. I am now going there with the receipt, and to try again to get to see her: the woman who left the money never waited for one. Afraid of being catechised, I take it.”

Picking up her green skirts she sailed down the road. Coralie Fontaine was leaning over the little gate, and opened it as we approached. A beautiful cashmere shawl, all scarlet and gold, contrasted with her white dress, and her drooping gold ear-drops glittered in the autumn sun. She made a dainty picture, and I saw Dr. Benjamin’s enraptured eyes meet hers. If they were not over head and ears in love with one another, never you trust me again.

“Mrs. Cramp is in a way,” cried Coralie, as we strolled with her up the garden, amidst its old-fashioned flowers, all bloom and sweetness. “I’m sure that black lady is as good as a play to us.”

“News came to me this morning from my sister,” said Benjamin. “She and the Archdeacon are coming home; he has not been well, and has six months’ leave of absence.”

“Do they bring the children?” asked Coralie.

“As if they’d leave them! Why, Coralie, those two small damsels are the very light of Margaret’s eyes—to judge by her letters; and of Sale’s too, I shouldn’t wonder. Margaret asks me to take lodgings for them. I think Mrs. Boughton’s might be large enough—where Sale lodged in the old days.”

“Lodgings!” indignantly exclaimed Coralie. “I do think you Europeans, you English, are the most inhospitable race on the face of the earth! Your only sister, whom you have not seen for years, of whom you are very fond, is coming back to her native place with her husband and children for a temporary stay, and you can talk of putting them into lodgings? For shame, Benjamin!”

“But what else am I to do?” questioned he, good-humouredly laughing at her. “I have only one bedroom and one sitting-room of my own, the two about as large as a good-sized clothes-closet; I cannot invite a man and his wife and two children to share them, and he an archdeacon! There wouldn’t be space to turn round in.”

“Let them come here,” said Coralie.

“Thank you,” he said, after a few moments’ hesitation: and it struck me he might be foreseeing difficulties. “But—they will not be here just yet.”

He had some patients at Islip, and went on there; I said adieu to Coralie and walked homewards, thinking of the ups and downs of life. Presently Mrs. Cramp’s green gown loomed into view; her face red, her bonnet awry. I saw she had not met with any luck.

“No, I have not,” she said. “I walked up into their porch as bold as you please, Johnny Ludlow, and I knocked and I rang, letting ’em think it was the Queen come, if they would. And when the woman with the sour face opened the door an inch, she just took the receipt from me; but as to seeing her mistress, I might as well have asked to see the moon. And I heard a scuffle, as if people were listening. Oh, it’s those Indians: trust me for that.”

Away she went, without further ceremony, and I went back to the ups and downs of earthly life.

It was not so very long ago that Thomas Rymer had lain on his death-bed, brought to it by the troubles of the world, and by the anxiety for his children, for whom no career seemed to present itself, saving that of hard, mean, hopeless drudgery: if not something worse for Benjamin. But how things had changed! Benjamin, pulling himself up from his ill-doings, was—what he was. A man respected; clever, distinguished, with probably a great career of usefulness before him, and about to be married to a charming girl of large fortune. While Margaret, whom her father had so loved, so pitied, was the wife of a man high in the Church, and happy as a queen. For, as you have gathered, the Reverend Isaac Sale, who had given up Herbert Tanerton’s humble curacy to go out as chaplain to the Bahama Islands, had been made an archdeacon. Ups and downs, ups and downs! they make the sum and substance of existence. Glancing at the blue sky, over which fleecy white clouds were softly drifting, I lost myself in wondering whether Thomas Rymer could look down and still see his children here.

The chemist’s shop at Timberdale had been sold by Benjamin Rymer to the smart young man who had carried it on during his absences, one James Boom, said to be Scotch. Benjamin had his rooms there at present; good-sized closets, he has just called them; and took his meals with Mr. Boom. Mrs. Rymer, the mother (having appropriated all the purchase-money), had set up her home in Birmingham amidst her old friends and relatives, and Benjamin had covenanted to allow her money yearly from his practice.


Public commotion increased. It spread to Oxlip Grange. One night, Ozias was sitting back amidst the laurels at the side of the house to smoke his pipe, when Maria came out to ask him what he had done with the best tea-tray, which they couldn’t find. As she stood a moment while he reflected, there came two figures softly creeping round from the front—women. One wore a close bonnet and full dark cloak, the other was altogether enveloped in some shapeless garment that might be yellow by daylight, out of which a jet-black face and jet-black hands shone conspicuously in the rays of the stars. Maria, very much frightened, grasped hold of the old man’s shoulder.

The pipe trembled in his hand: he had a mortal dread of assassins and housebreakers. “No speaky, no speaky,” whispered he. “We watch, you and me. They come hurt Missee.”

The figures made for the lighted window of the large drawing-room, which was at the end of this side of the house. Coralie was sitting alone within it, expecting visitors to tea. The blind was not drawn quite down, and they stooped to peer in, and remained there as if glued to the window. Maria could stand it no longer, but in creeping away, she rustled the laurels frightfully: we are sure to make the most noise, you know, when we want to be silent. The women looked round, and there came from them a rattling hiss, like that of a snake. With a scream, Maria made for the refuge of the kitchen-door; Ozias flew after her, dropping his pipe.

It must have disturbed the women. For just about then, when the Squire, holding my arm, arrived at Miss Fontaine’s gate, they were coming out: two disguised figures, who went swiftly down the road.

“Mercy be good to us!” cried the Squire, aghast. He had drawn back in politeness to let them pass through the gate, and had found the black face come nearly into contact with his own. “Johnny, lad, that must be Mrs. Cramp’s tenant and her servant!”

They brushed past Mrs. Todhetley coming along with Tod. Maria and Ozias were in the drawing-room when we got in, talking like wild things. The other guests soon arrived, Dr. Rymer, Mrs. Cramp, and Tom Chandler and his wife from Islip. Ozias gave an opinion that Missee (meaning Coralie) was about to be assassinated in her bed.

At this Coralie laughed. She had no fear, but she did not like it. “I cannot see what they could possibly want, looking in at me!” she cried. “It was very rude.”

“They want Missee’s diamonds,” spoke Ozias. “Missee got great lot beauty diamonds, lot other beauty jewels; black woman come in this night—next night—after night—who know which—and smother Missee and take dem all.”

Poor Mrs. Cramp, sitting in the biggest arm-chair, her sandalled shoes stretched on a footstool, was quite taken out of herself with dismay. The Squire rubbed his face incessantly, asking what was to be done. Dr. Rymer said nothing in regard to what was to be done; but he gave his head an emphatic nod, as if he knew.

The next morning he presented himself at North Villa, and asked to see its tenant. The woman-servant denied him—over the chain. Ben insisted upon his card and his request being taken in. After a battle of words, she took them in, shutting the door in his face the while; and the doctor cooled his heels in the porch for five minutes. As she drew the door open again, he caught sight of a black face twisted round the sitting-room door-post to peep at him, a black hand, with rings on it, grasping it. She saw him looking at her, and disappeared like a shot. The message brought out by the servant was that her mistress was an invalid, unable to see visitors: if Dr. Rymer had any business with her, he must be good enough to convey it by letter.

“Very well,” said the doctor, in his decisive way: “I warn you and your mistress not again to intrude on Miss Fontaine’s premises, as you did last night. If you do, you must take the consequences.”

At this, the woman stared as if it were so much Greek to her. She answered that she had not been on Miss Fontaine’s premises, then or ever; had not been out-of-doors at all the previous night. And Ben thought by her tone she was speaking truth.

“It was one of those Indian brothers disguised in a cloak and bonnet,” said we all when we heard this. And Coralie’s servants took to watching through the livelong night at the upper windows, turn and turn about, growing thin from dread of the assassins.

Altogether, what with one small item and another, Mrs. Cramp’s tenant kept us alive. A belief had prevailed that the woman-servant was the same who had attended the Indians; but this was dispelled. A housemaid of ours, Nancy, a flighty sort of girl, often in hot water with her elders thereby, whose last service had been with old Lawyer Cockermouth, at Worcester, was out on an errand when she met this woman and recognized her for an old acquaintance. During Nancy’s service with the lawyer she had been there as the cook-housekeeper.

“It is Sarah Stone, ma’am, and nobody else!” cried Nancy, running in to tell the news to Mrs. Todhetley. “She left for her temper, soon after I left; I heard say that old Miss Cockermouth wouldn’t put up with it any longer.”

“Are you sure it is the same, Nancy?” asked Mrs Todhetley.

“Why, ma’am, I know Sarah Stone as well as I know my own mother. ‘What, is it you that’s living here with that there black lady?’ I says to her. ‘What is it to you whether I’m living with a black lady or a white ’un,’ she answers me, crustily: ‘just mind your own affairs, Nancy Dell.’ ‘Well,’ says I, ‘there’s a pretty talk about her; it’s not me that would like to serve a wild Indian’—and that set Sarah Stone off at a strapping pace, ma’am.”

Thus things went on. North Villa seeming to grow more isolated day by day, and its inmates more mysterious. When the rent for the next month was nearly due, Mrs. Cramp found it left at her house as before: and poor Mrs. Cramp felt fit to have a fever.

One evening, early in November, Mr. Cole, the surgeon of Crabb, was seen to go into North Villa. He was seen to go again the following morning, and again in the afternoon, and again in the evening. It transpired that the black lady was alarmingly ill.

Naturally, it put the parish up in arms. We made a rush for Cole, wanting to ask him five hundred things. Cole, skimming along the ground like a lamplighter, avoided us all; and the first to succeed in pouncing upon him was Miss Timmens, the schoolmistress. Very downright and honest, she was in the habit of calling a spade a spade, and poured out her questions one upon another. They had met by the yellow barn.

“Well, no,” answers Cole, when he could get a word in, “I don’t think that any murderer is at North Villa; do not see one about, but there’s a baby.” “A baby!” shrieks Miss Timmens, as she pushed back the bunches of black curls from her thin cheeks with their chronic redness, “a baby!” “Yes, a baby,” says Cole, “a new baby.” “Good mercy!” cries she, “a baby! a black baby! Is it a boy or a girl, Mr. Cole?” “It’s a boy,” says Cole. “Good mercy! a black boy!—what an extraordinary sight it must be!” Cole says nothing to this; only looks at her as meek as a lamb. “And now, between ourselves, doctor,” goes on Miss Timmens, confidentially, “did you see the Indians there?—those men?” “Did not see any man at all,” answers Cole, “saw no sign of a man being there.” “Ah, of course they’d take their precautions to keep out of sight,” nodded Miss Timmens, thinking old Cole uncommonly stupid today. “And how do you relish attending on a black patient, doctor? And what’s she like?” “Why,” answers Cole, “black patients are much the same as white ones; have the same number of arms and legs and fingers.” “Oh, indeed,” says Miss Timmens, quite sharply; and she wishes Cole good-day. And that was the best that could be got out of Cole.

The doctor’s visits were watched with the most intense interest; three times a-day at first, then twice a-day, then once; and then they ceased altogether.

“Black lady on her legs again?” says Ben Rymer, meeting Cole about this time. “Quite so,” answers Cole. “Mind that you get paid, sir,” says Ben, with a laugh. “No need to mind that,” returns Cole, “five sovereigns were put into my hand when the child was born.” “By the black lady?” asks Ben, opening his eyes: for two guineas was the crack fee in our parts. “Yes, it was the black lady who gave it me,” says Cole with emphasis: “and that, she took care to say, was not to include subsequent attendance. Wish you the same luck in your next case, Rymer.”

Rymer thanked him and went off laughing. He was getting on in his practice like a house on fire, his fame rising daily.

“How do you like it—his setting up here?” confidentially questioned the Squire of Darbyshire, the doctor at Timberdale.

“Plenty of room for both of us,” replied Darbyshire, “and I am not as young as I was. It rather strikes me, though, Squire, it is not exactly at Timberdale that Rymer will pitch his tent.”

The next exciting event had nothing to do with North Villa. It was the arrival of Archdeacon Sale with his wife and children. They did not go to Coralie’s. Herbert Tanerton opened his heart, and carried them off to the Rectory from the railway-station. That was so like Herbert! Had Sale remained a poor curate he might have gone to the workhouse and taken Margaret with him; being an archdeacon Herbert chose to make much of him. Margaret was not altered, she was loving and gentle as ever; with the same nice face, and poor Thomas Rymer’s sad, sweet eyes shining from it.

Of course the first thing confided to the Bahama travellers was the mystery at North Villa. The Archdeacon took a sensible view of it. “As long as the black lady does not molest you,” he said, “why trouble yourselves about her?”

After that we had a bit of a lull. Nothing exciting occurred. Saving a report that two of the Indians were seen taking the air in the garden of North Villa, each with a formidable stick in his hand. But it turned out that they were two tramps who had gone in to beg.

3.

I thought it would have come to a quarrel. The Squire maintained his view and Coralie maintained hers. They talked at each other daily, neither giving way.

Christmas–Day was approaching, and it had pleased Miss Fontaine to project a sumptuous dinner for it, to be given at Oxlip Grange to all her special friends. The Squire protested he never heard of anything so unreasonable. He did not dine out of his own house on Christmas–Day, and she must come to Crabb Cot.

The third week in December had set in, when one evening, as we rose from table, the Squire impulsively declared he would go and finally have it out with her.

Meaning Coralie. Settling himself into his great-coat, he called to me to go after him. In the Islip Road we overtook Cole, walking fast also. He had been sent for to the baby at North Villa, he said; and we left him at the gate.

Coralie was in her favourite little parlour, reading by lamplight. The Squire sat down by the fire in a flutter, and began remonstrating about the Christmas dinner. Coralie only laughed.

“It is unreasonable, dear Mr. Todhetley, even to propose our going to you. Think of the number! I wish to have everybody. The Archdeacon and his wife, and Dr. Rymer, and Mrs. Cramp, and the Letsoms, and Tom Chandler and Emma, and of course, her father, old Mr. Paul, as he is some relation of mine, and—— Why, that’s a carriage driving up! I wonder who has come to-night?”

Another minute, and old Ozias rushed in with a beaming face, hardly able to get his words out for excitement.

“Oh, Missee, Missee, it Massa George; come all over wide seas from home,”—and there entered a fine man with a frank and handsome face—George Bazalgette.

“Where’s Verena?” he exclaimed, after kissing Coralie and shaking hands genially with the Squire, though they had never met before.

Coralie looked surprised. “Verena?” she repeated. “Is she not with you?”

“She is not with me; I wish she was. Where is she, Coralie?”

“But how should I know where she is?” retorted Coralie, looking up at Mr. Bazalgette.

“Is she not staying with you? Did she not come over to you?”

“Certainly not,” said Coralie. “I have not seen Verena since she went out, sixteen months ago. Neither have I heard from her lately. What is it that you mean, George?”

George Bazalgette stood back against the book-case, and told us what he meant. Some weeks ago—nay, months—upon returning to Magnolia Range after a week’s absence at his other estate across the country, he found Verena flown. She left a note for him, saying she did not get on well with Magnolia, and was going to stay a little while with Mrs. Dickson. He felt hurt that Verena had not spoken openly to him about Magnolia, but glad that she should have the change, as she had not been well of late. Mrs. Dickson was his aunt and lived in a particularly healthy part of one of the adjoining islands. Time passed on; he wrote to Verena, but received no answer to his letters, and he concluded she was so put out with Magnolia that she would not write. By-and-by he thought it was time to see after her, and journeyed to Mrs. Dickson’s. Mrs. Dickson was absent, gone to stay with some friends at St. Thomas, and the servants did not know when she would return. He supposed, as a matter of course, that she had taken Verena with her, and went back home. Still the time passed; no news of Verena, no letters, and he proceeded again to Mrs. Dickson’s. Then, to his unbounded astonishment, he found that Verena had only stayed with her one week, and had taken the mail-packet for Southampton on her way to stay with her sister at Oxlip Grange. Giving a blessing to Mrs. Dickson for not having written to inform him of all this, and for having kept his letters to Verena by that young lady’s arbitrary command, he came off at once to England.

“Good gracious!” exclaimed Coralie. “She did not come here.”

The fine colour on George Bazalgette’s face, which retained its freshness though he did live in a hot climate, lost its brightness.

“She would be the least likely to come here, of all places,” pursued Coralie. “In the last answer I ever sent her, after a letter of complaints to me, hinting that she thought of coming here for a time, I scolded her sharply and assured her I should despatch her back to you the next day.”

“What am I to do?” he exclaimed. “Where look for her?”

Not caring to intrude longer, we took our departure, the Squire shaking his head dubiously over Mrs. George Bazalgette’s vagaries. “It was the same thing,” he said, “when she was Verena Fontaine, as you remember, Johnny, and what a good fellow her husband seems to be.—Halloa! Why, that’s Cole again!”

He was coming out of North Villa. “You are back soon!” he cried. And we told him of the arrival of George Bazalgette.

Cole seemed to stare with all his eyes as he listened. I could see them in the starlight. “What will he do if he can’t find her here?” he asked of me. “Do you know, Johnny Ludlow?”

“Go back by the first and fleetest ship to turn Mrs. Dickson inside-out. He thinks she and Verena have played him a trick in letting him come over. How did you find the black baby?”

“Found nothing the matter with it,” growled Cole. “These young mothers are so fanciful!”

We left him standing against the gate, supposing that he had to go higher up. And what happened then, I can only tell you by hearsay.

Cole, propping his back against the spikes, turned his face up to the stars, as if he were taking counsel of them. Counsel he needed from somebody or something, for he was in a dilemma.

“Well, I’ll chance it,” he thought, when he had got pretty cold. “It seems the right thing to do.”

Walking briskly to Oxlip Grange, he asked to see Mr. Bazalgette; and after whispering a few words into that gentleman’s ear, brought him out to North Villa. “You stand behind me, so as not to be seen,” he directed, ringing the bell.

“I’m coming in again,” said he to Sarah Stone, when she pulled the door back about an inch. So she undid the chain; the doctor was privileged, and he slipped in, Mr. Bazalgette behind him. Sarah, the faithful, was for showing fight.

“It is all right,” said Cole. “Not yet, sir”—putting out his arm to bar Mr. Bazalgette’s passage. “You go in first, to your mistress, Sarah, and say that a gentleman is waiting to see her: just landed from the West Indies.”

But the commotion had attracted attention, and a young lady, not black, but charmingly white, appeared at the parlour-door, a black head behind her.

“George!” she shrieked. And the next moment flew into his arms, sobbing and crying, and kissing him. Cole decamped.

That past evening in November, when Cole received a message that his services were needed at North Villa, he went expecting to be introduced to a black lady. A black lady in truth showed him in; or, to be correct, a lady’s black attendant, and he saw—Verena Fontaine.

That is, Verena Bazalgette. She put Cole upon his honour, not to disclose her secret, and told him a long string of her sister-in-law’s iniquities, as touching lecturing and domineering, and that she had left home intending to come over for a time to Coralie. Whilst staying with Mrs. Dickson before sailing, a letter was forwarded to her from Magnolia Grange. It was from Coralie; and it convinced Verena that Coralie’s would be no safe refuge, that she would be sent out of it at once back to her husband. She sailed, as projected, allowing Mrs. Dickson to think she was still coming to her sister. Upon landing at Southampton she went on to a small respectable inn at Worcester, avoiding the larger hotels lest she should meet people who knew her. Seeing the advertisement of North Villa to let, she wrote to the agent, and secured it. To be near Coralie seemed like a protection, though she might not go to her. Next she answered an advertisement from a cook (inserted by Sarah Stone), and engaged her, binding her to secrecy. The woman, though of crusty temper, was honest and trustworthy, and espoused the cause of her young mistress, and was zealously true to her. She carried in to her the various reports that were abroad, of the Indians and the black lady, and all the rest of it; causing Verena bursts of laughter, the only divertisement she had in her imprisoned life: she did not dare to go out lest she should be recognized and the news carried to Coralie. Dalla, a faithful native servant who had been left in the West Indies and returned to Verena when she married George Bazalgette, attended her on her solitary voyage. She it was who was black, not Verena. And the night they stole into the premises of Oxlip Grange it was done with the hope of getting a sly peep at Coralie’s face; both of them were longing for it. Hearing the stir in the shrubs, Dalla had hissed; her thoughts were back in her own land, and it was her mode of startling away four-footed night animals there.

George Bazalgette was very angry with his wife, more especially so at her having absented herself at that uncertain time, and he declared to her that he would put her away from him for good if ever she attempted such a thing again. With tears enough to float a ship, Verena gave him her solemn promise that she never would leave him again. Never again: she had been too miserable this time, and the baby had nearly frightened her to death, for she had not expected him so soon and had meant to go back for it.


The Squire could not hold out now, and the Christmas dinner was at Coralie’s. We went over to Timberdale Church in the morning, a lot of us, to hear the Archdeacon preach. Herbert gave up the pulpit to him, taking the prayers himself. He was a plain little man, as you knew before, and he gave us a plain sermon, but it was one of those that are worth their weight in gold. Lady Tenby whispered that to me as we came out. “And oh, Johnny,” she said, “we are so glad he has got on! We always liked Isaac Sale.”

It was a grand dinner-party, though not as many were present as Coralie wanted. The Letsoms did not care to leave their own fireside, or old Paul, or the Chandlers. Verena was the life of it, laughing and joking and parading about with her baby, who had been christened “George” the day before, Mrs. Cramp having been asked to be its godmother.

“Which I think was very pretty of them, Mr. Johnny,” she said to me after dinner; “and I’m proud of standing to it.”

“It was in recompense for the worry I’ve given you, you dear old thing!” whispered Verena, as she pulled Mrs. Cramp’s chair backwards and kissed her motherly forehead. “You’ll never have such a tenant again—for worry.”

“Never, I hope, please Heaven!” assented Mrs. Cramp. “And I’m sure I shall never see a black woman without shivering. Now, my dear, you just put my chair down; you’ll have me backwards. Hold it, will you, Mr. Johnny!”

“What dishes of talk you’ll get up about me with Susan Dennet!” went on Verena, the chair still tilted. “We are going back home the beginning of the year, do you know. George got his letters today.”

“And what about that young lady over there—that Miss Magnolia?” asked Mrs. Cramp.

Verena let the chair fall in ecstasy, and her tone was brimful of delight. “Oh, that’s the best news of all! Magnolia is going to be married: she only waits for George to get back to give her away. I must say this is a delightful Christmas–Day!”

On the thirty-first of December, the last day in the year, Coralie was married to Dr. Rymer. Archdeacon Sale, being Benjamin’s brother-in-law, came over to Islip Church to tie the knot. Her brother-in-law, George Bazalgette, gave her away. The breakfast was held at Coralie’s, Verena presiding in sky-blue satin.

And amidst the company was a lady some of us had not expected to see—Mrs. Rymer. She had scarlet ringlets (white feathers setting them off today) and might be vulgar to her fingers’-ends, but she was Benjamin’s mother, and Coralie had privately sent for her.

“You have my best wishes, Mr. Benjamin,” said the Squire, drawing Ben aside while Coralie was putting on her travelling attire; “and I’d be glad with all my heart had your father lived to see it.”

“So should I be, Squire.”

“Look here,” whispered the Squire, holding him by the button-hole, “did you ever tell her of that—that—you know—that past trouble?”

“Of the bank-note, you mean,” said Ben. “I told her of that long ago, and everything else that could tell against me. Believe me, Mr. Todhetley, though my faults were many in the days gone by, I could not act dishonourably by my dear wife; no, nor by any one else now.”

The Squire nodded with a beaming face, and pressed Ben’s hand.

“And let me thank you now, sir, for your long-continued kindness, your expressions of esteem for my poor father and of goodwill to me,” said Ben, with emotion. “I have not talked of it, but I have felt it.”

They started away in their new close carriage, amidst a shower of rice and old shoes; and we finished up the revels in the evening with a dance and a fiddle, the Squire leading out Mrs. Cramp. Then came a cold supper.

The noise had reached its height, and the champagne was going about, when the Squire interrupted with a “Hush, hush!” and the babel ceased. The clock on the mantelpiece was striking twelve. As the last stroke vibrated on the air, its echo alone breaking the silence, the Squire rose and lifted his hands—

“A Happy New Year to us all, my friends! May God send His best blessings with it!”


It may as well be added, in the interests of peace and quietness, that those Indians had not committed any crime at all; it had been invented by rumour, as Worcester discovered later. They were only inoffensive strangers, travelling about to see the land.

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